It’s been an awfully long time since my last post – blame coursework! I have a few weeks to get a couple of posts in before I have more coursework and then exams, so enjoy me while I’m here.
If you’ve coded at all with Unity, you’ve probably noticed its API has a lot of methods called ‘lerp’. Mathf.Lerp(), Vector3.Lerp(), Color.Lerp(); all of these are very helpful methods. But what exactly do they do, and how should we be using them properly? First of all, I’m gonna go ahead and show you how they’re meant to be used, then I’m gonna break them horribly to show you cheap ways of doing cool stuff.
How to use Lerp without being hacky
‘Linear Interpolation’ is a lot of syllables to get your head around, so first of all, let me explain what it means. Let’s say we have a thing. We want the thing to change into another thing at a constant (linear) rate. This is what linear interpolation does – it takes a vector, colour, float, you name it, and changes it into a new one.
This is the lerp method for Vector3. We pass in startPos, endPos (both Vector3s) and a float parameter; this parameter should be between 0.0 and 1.0. When time = 0.0, the object’s position will be 100% at startPos and 0% at endPos, and when time = 1.0, it will be placed at 0% startPos and 100% endPos. It’s easiest to demonstrate what lerp is doing when talking about Color.Lerp(), so we can use a pretty diagram:
Here, the square represents the RGB colour scale found in Unity’s colour picker (well, flipped horizontally). When we use Color.Lerp() in this way, when the third parameter is 0, the method returns a red colour (#ff0000 in hexadecimal RGB colour representation) and when the parameter is 1, we get full white (#ffffff). At any point in between, we blend between the two linearly – at 0.5, we’ll get a pink-ish colour exactly halfway between red and white on the RGB scale (#ff7f7f roughly) and at 0.75, we get something mostly white but retaining a tiny bit of red (about #ffbfbf).
Once we understand what lerp is doing when we pass in certain numbers, we can pull everything together cleanly into a coroutine.
We pass in the sprite renderer whose colour will change, the colour it will change to and how long it will take to change. The coroutine automatically works out all of the needed variables for the user, so we don’t need to pass in the start colour. Every frame, we set the new colour of the renderer based on what percentage the current time is between the start and end times. Simple! The final step is to ensure the colour gets set to the end colour exactly, since the loop might have exited only 99.9% through the lerp (it’s never going to be noticeable to the human eye, but I’m doing this for the sake of completeness and to avoid triggering anyone’s OCD).
How to use Lerp badly
Now that we know how to use lerp properly, it’s time to be a terrible person! I’ll show you one popular way of using lerp badly. Assume, for the following example, that the ‘speed’ variable is set to 0.1f.
I’ve tried to illustrate what happens on each frame here. At the start (on the first time interval), the sprite colour is at its original colour. At the second time interval (0.1s after starting), we have moved 10% from the original position towards the final position. This is easy to understand – we move 10% of the way between full red and full white (assuming the original colour was red and targetCol is white). On the next interval, we have travelled another 10%. However, the starting point was not the original red – it was 10% towards white. This means the current colour is 10% between the last colour and full white; it is now 19% towards full white. This process continues; rather than moving linearly between red and white, the end result is a curve.
The reason this works is because the time parameter we pass in is always a fraction between 0 and 1, but the start colour is always changing too. It’s not exact, but roughly every 0.1s, the colour will change 10%. The numbers above won’t be precise since the lerp is running every frame, not every 0.1s, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how this blasphemy is working behind the scenes. This isn’t how lerp is intended to be used, but it is a cheap way of moving between vectors, colours or floats on a curve. It’s disgustingly amazing – dismazing, if you will.
It’s also worth noting that if the parameter passed to lerp is set to below 0 or above 1, it will snap up or down to those boundary values. Now you should be a certified lerp expert! I’ve put both versions of the linear interpolation script online for you to download if you’re too lazy to copy them (which is only a problem because I’m too lazy to make them look nice without resorting to taking screenshots. My bad).