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The idea behind smart pointers is reference counting. If the object goes out of scope and it is not being used anywhere else, it will be deleted automatically. This is an important part of writing exception-safe code. Pretty 'smart', eh?


Creating an Object with a Smart Pointer

One way to create a VTK object is

vtkObject* MyObject = vtkObject::New();

This method, however, can (and likely will) lead to memory management issues at some point or another. You must manually delete the object


or you will have a memory leak. VTK's solution to this ever-annoying problem is the smart pointer. To use it, you must

#include <vtkSmartPointer.h>

Then you can create an object as follows:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkObject> MyObject = vtkSmartPointer<vtkObject>::New();

Getting an Object with a Smart Pointer

When not allocating memory for an object, you can still use smart pointers. Take this simple example:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkXMLPolyDataReader> Reader = vtkSmartPointer<vtkXMLPolyDataReader>::New();
vtkPolyData* pd = Reader->GetOutput();


vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> pd = Reader->GetOutput();

In the first case, when the reader object goes out of scope, the data is deleted. In the second case, by using a smart pointer we have incremented the data's reference count by 1, so the data will not be deleted until the reader AND the polydata object go out of scope.

Returning a Smart Pointer

If you define a function like this:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> MyFunction()
  vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> MyObject = vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData>::New();
  return MyObject;

And call the function using:

vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> MyPolydata = MyFunction();

This is different from:

vtkPolyData* MyFunction()
  vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> MyObject = vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData>::New();
  return MyObject;

vtkPolyData* MyPolydata = MyFunction();

In the first case, the smart pointer in the function is copied to the smart pointer in the caller, so the reference count remains unchanged and the associated object is not deleted.

In the second case, the smart pointer is converted to a raw pointer before being returned to the caller. As the function exits, the smart pointer's reference count goes to zero and the actual object is deleted, leaving the raw pointer dangling, pointing at freed memory.

Putting an Existing Object into a Smart Pointer

Using Smart Pointers as Class Member Variables

You should NOT (why?) use smart pointers for VTK class member variables.


  • If you create an object and then change where it is pointing, the reference count will be incorrect. e.g.
vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData> Polydata = vtkSmartPointer<vtkPolyData>::New();
Polydata = Reader->GetOutput();

In this case, memory is allocated for Polydata, but then we change Polydata to point to the output of Reader rather than the memory we just allocated. Instead, we should have done simply:

vtkPolyData* Polydata = Reader->GetOutput();

It was not necessary to use a smart pointer because we did not actually create any new objects.


Here is an example of equivalent operations with and without smart pointers:


#include <vtkFloatArray.h>
#include <vtkSmartPointer.h>

void WithSmartPointers();
void WithoutSmartPointers();

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
  return 0;

void WithSmartPointers()
  vtkSmartPointer<vtkFloatArray> Distances = vtkSmartPointer<vtkFloatArray>::New();

void WithoutSmartPointers()
  vtkFloatArray* Distances = vtkFloatArray::New();


cmake_minimum_required(VERSION 2.6)



ADD_EXECUTABLE(SmartPointers SmartPointers.cpp)
TARGET_LINK_LIBRARIES(SmartPointers vtkHybrid)