This tutorial will show you how to programmatically create different kinds of bodies and set initial conditions for Skeletons. It will also demonstrate some use of DART’s Frame Semantics.

The tutorial consists of five Lessons covering the following topics:

  • Creating a rigid body
  • Creating a soft body
  • Setting initial conditions and taking advantage of Frames
  • Setting joint spring and damping properties
  • Creating a closed kinematic chain

Please reference the source code in tutorialCollisions.cpp and tutorialCollisions-Finished.cpp.

Lesson 1: Creating a rigid body

Start by going opening the Skeleton code tutorialCollisions.cpp. Find the function named addRigidBody. You will notice that this is a templated function. If you’re not familiar with templates, that’s okay; we won’t be doing anything too complicated with them. Different Joint types in DART are managed by a bunch of different classes, so we need to use templates if we want the same function to work with a variety of Joint types.

Lesson 1a: Setting joint properties

The first thing we’ll want to do is set the Joint properties for our new body. Whenever we create a BodyNode, we must also create a parent Joint for it. A BodyNode needs a parent Joint, even if that BodyNode is the root of the Skeleton, because we need its parent Joint to describe how it’s attached to the world. A root BodyNode could be attached to the world by any kind of Joint. Most often, it will be attached by either a FreeJoint (if the body should be completely free to move with respect to the world) or a WeldJoint (if the body should be rigidly attached to the world, unable to move at all), but any Joint type is permissible.

Joint properties are managed in a nested class, which means it’s a class which is defined inside of another class. For example, RevoluteJoint properties are managed in a class called RevoluteJoint::Properties while PrismaticJoint properties are managed in a class called PrismaticJoint::Properties. However, both RevoluteJoint and PrismaticJoint inherit the SingleDofJoint class so the RevoluteJoint::Properties and PrismaticJoint::Properties classes both inherit the SingleDofJoint::Properties class. The difference is that RevoluteJoint::Properties also inherits RevoluteJoint::UniqueProperties whereas PrismaticJoint::Properties inherits PrismaticJoint::UniqueProperties instead. Many DART classes contain nested Properties classes like this which are compositions of their base class’s nested Properties class and their own UniqueProperties class. As you’ll see later, this is useful for providing a consistent API that works cleanly for fundamentally different types of classes.

To create a Properties class for our Joint type, we’ll want to say cpp typename JointType::Properties properties;

We need to include the typename keywords because of how the syntax works for templated functions. Leaving it out should make your compiler complain.

From here, we can set the Joint properties in any way we’d like. There are only a few things we care about right now: First, the Joint’s name. Every Joint in a Skeleton needs to have a non-empty unique name. Those are the only restrictions that are placed on Joint names. If you try to make a Joint’s name empty, it will be given a default name. If you try to make a Joint’s name non-unique, DART will append a number tag to the end of the name in order to make it unique. It will also print out a warning during run time, which can be an eyesore (because it wants you to be aware when you are being negligent about naming things). For the sake of simplicity, let’s just give it a name based off its child BodyNode:

properties.mName = name+"_joint";

Don’t forget to uncomment the function arguments.

Next we’ll want to deal with offsetting the new BodyNode from its parent BodyNode. We can use the following to check if there is a parent BodyNode:

  // TODO: offset the child from its parent

Inside the brackets, we’ll want to create the offset between bodies:

Eigen::Isometry3d tf(Eigen::Isometry3d::Identity());

An Eigen::Isometry3d is the Eigen library’s version of a homogeneous transformation matrix. Here we are initializing it to an Identity matrix to start out. This is almost always something you should do when creating an Eigen::Isometry3d, because otherwise its contents will be completely arbitrary trash.

We can easily compute the center point between the origins of the two bodies using our default height value:

tf.translation() = Eigen::Vector3d(0, 0, default_shape_height / 2.0);

We can then offset the parent and child BodyNodes of this Joint using this transform:

properties.mT_ParentBodyToJoint = tf;
properties.mT_ChildBodyToJoint = tf.inverse();

Remember that all of that code should go inside the if(parent) condition. We do not want to create this offset for root BodyNodes, because later on we will rely on the assumption that the root Joint origin is lined up with the root BodyNode origin.

Lesson 1b: Create a Joint and BodyNode pair

A single function is used to simultaneously create a new Joint and its child BodyNode. It’s important to note that a Joint cannot be created without a child BodyNode to accompany it, and a BodyNode cannot be created with parent Joint to attach it to something. A parent Joint without a child BodyNode or vice-versa would be non-physical and nonsensical, so we don’t allow it.

Use the following to create a new Joint & BodyNode, and obtain a pointer to that new BodyNode:

BodyNode* bn = chain->createJointAndBodyNodePair<JointType>(
      parent, properties, BodyNode::AspectProperties(name)).second;

There’s a lot going on in this function, so let’s break it down for a moment:


This is a Skeleton member function that takes template arguments. The first template argument specifies the type of Joint that you want to create. In our case, the type of Joint we want to create is actually a template argument of our current function, so we just pass that argument along. The second template argument of createJointAndBodyNodePair allows us to specify the BodyNode type that we want to create, but the default argument is a standard rigid BodyNode, so we can leave the second argument blank.

(parent, properties, BodyNode::AspectProperties(name))

Now for the function arguments: The first specifies the parent BodyNode. In the event that you want to create a root BodyNode, you can simply pass in a nullptr as the parent. The second argument is a JointType::Properties struct, so we pass in the properties object that we created earlier. The third argument is a BodyNode::Properties struct, but we’re going to set the BodyNode properties later, so we’ll just toss the name in by wrapping it up in a BodyNode::AspectProperties object and leave the rest as default values.

Now notice the very last thing on this line of code:


The function actually returns a std::pair of pointers to the new Joint and new BodyNode that were just created, but we only care about grabbing the BodyNode once the function is finished, so we can append .second to the end of the line so that we just grab the BodyNode pointer and ignore the Joint pointer. The joint will of course still be created; we just have no need to access it at this point.

Lesson 1c: Make a shape for the body

We’ll take advantage of the Shape::ShapeType enumeration to specify what kind of Shape we want to produce for the body. In particular, we’ll allow the user to specify three types of Shapes: Shape::BOX, Shape::CYLINDER, and Shape::ELLIPSOID.

ShapePtr shape;
if(Shape::BOX == type)
  // TODO: Make a box
else if(Shape::CYLINDER == type)
  // TODO: Make a cylinder
else if(SHAPE::ELLIPSOID == type)
  // TODO: Make an ellipsoid

ShapePtr is simply a typedef for std::shared_ptr<Shape>. DART has this typedef in order to improve space usage and readability, because this type gets used very often.

Now we want to construct each of the Shape types within their conditional statements. Each constructor is a bit different.

For box we pass in an Eigen::Vector3d that contains the three dimensions of the box:

shape = std::make_shared<BoxShape>(Eigen::Vector3d(

For cylinder we pass in a radius and a height:

shape = std::make_shared<CylinderShape>(default_shape_width/2.0,

For ellipsoid we pass in an Eigen::Vector3d that contains the lengths of the three axes:

shape = std::make_shared<EllipsoidShape>(

Since we actually want a sphere, all three axis lengths will be equal, so we can create an Eigen::Vector3d filled with ones by using Eigen::Vector3d::Ones() and then multiply it by the length that we actually want for the three components.

Finally, we want to add this shape as a visualization and collision shape for the BodyNode:


We want to do this no matter which type was selected, so those two lines of code should be after all the condition statements.

Lesson 1d: Set up the inertia properties for the body

For the simulations to be physically accurate, it’s important for the inertia properties of the body to match up with the geometric properties of the shape. We can create an Inertia object and set its values based on the shape’s geometry, then give that Inertia to the BodyNode.

Inertia inertia;
double mass = default_shape_density * shape->getVolume();

Lesson 1e: Set the coefficient of restitution

This is very easily done with the following function:


Lesson 1f: Set the damping coefficient

In real life, joints have friction. This pulls energy out of systems over time, and makes those systems more stable. In our simulation, we’ll ignore air friction, but we’ll add friction in the joints between bodies in order to have better numerical and dynamic stability:

  Joint* joint = bn->getParentJoint();
  for(size_t i=0; i < joint->getNumDofs(); ++i)

If this BodyNode has a parent BodyNode, then we set damping coefficients of its Joint to a default value.

Lesson 2: Creating a soft body

Find the templated function named addSoftBody. This function will have a role identical to the addRigidBody function from earlier.

Lesson 2a: Set the Joint properties

This portion is exactly the same as Lesson 1a. You can even copy the code directly from there if you’d like to.

Lesson 2b: Set the properties of the soft body

Last time we set the BodyNode properties after creating it, but this time we’ll set them beforehand.

First, let’s create a struct for the properties that are unique to SoftBodyNodes:

SoftBodyNode::UniqueProperties soft_properties;

Later we will combine this with a standard BodyNode::Properties struct, but for now let’s fill it in. Up above we defined an enumeration for a couple different SoftBodyNode types. There is no official DART-native enumeration for this, we created our own to use for this function. We’ll want to fill in the SoftBodyNode::UniqueProperties struct based off of this enumeration:

if(SOFT_BOX == type)
  // TODO: make a soft box
else if(SOFT_CYLINDER == type)
  // TODO: make a soft cylinder
else if(SOFT_ELLIPSOID == type)
  // TODO: make a soft ellipsoid

Each of these types has a static function in the SoftBodyNodeHelper class that will set up your UniqueProperties for you. The arguments for each of the functions are a bit complicated, so here is how to call it for each type:

For the SOFT_BOX: ```cpp // Make a wide and short box double width = default_shape_height, height = 2*default_shape_width; Eigen::Vector3d dims(width, width, height);

Eigen::Vector3d dims(width, width, height); double mass = 2dims[0]dims[1] + 2dims[0]dims[2] + 2dims[1]dims[2]; mass *= default_shape_density * default_skin_thickness; soft_properties = SoftBodyNodeHelper::makeBoxProperties( dims, Eigen::Isometry3d::Identity(), Eigen::Vector3i(4,4,4), mass); ```

For the SOFT_CYLINDER: ```cpp // Make a wide and short cylinder double radius = default_shape_height/2.0, height = 2*default_shape_width;

// Mass of center double mass = default_shape_density * height * 2M_PIradius * default_skin_thickness; // Mass of top and bottom mass += 2 * default_shape_density * M_PI*pow(radius,2) * default_skin_thickness; soft_properties = SoftBodyNodeHelper::makeCylinderProperties( radius, height, 8, 3, 2, mass); ```

And for the SOFT_ELLIPSOID: cpp double radius = default_shape_height/2.0; Eigen::Vector3d dims = 2*radius*Eigen::Vector3d::Ones(); double mass = default_shape_density * 4.0*M_PI*pow(radius, 2) * default_skin_thickness; soft_properties = SoftBodyNodeHelper::makeEllipsoidProperties( dims, 6, 6, mass);

Feel free to play around with the different parameters, like number of slices and number of stacks. However, be aware that some of those parameters have a minimum value, usually of 2 or 3. During runtime, you should be warned if you try to create one with a parameter that’s too small.

Lastly, we’ll want to fill in the softness coefficients:

soft_properties.mKv = default_vertex_stiffness;
soft_properties.mKe = default_edge_stiffness;
soft_properties.mDampCoeff = default_soft_damping;

Lesson 2c: Create the Joint and Soft Body pair

This step is very similar to Lesson 1b, except now we’ll want to specify that we’re creating a soft BodyNode. First, let’s create a full SoftBodyNode::Properties:

SoftBodyNode::Properties body_properties(BodyNode::Properties(name),

This will combine the UniqueProperties of the SoftBodyNode with the standard properties of a BodyNode. Now we can pass the whole thing into the creation function:

SoftBodyNode* bn = chain->createJointAndBodyNodePair<JointType, SoftBodyNode>(
      parent, joint_properties, body_properties).second;

Notice that this time it will return a SoftBodyNode pointer rather than a normal BodyNode pointer. This is one of the advantages of templates!

Lesson 2d: Zero out the BodyNode inertia

A SoftBodyNode has two sources of inertia: the underlying inertia of the standard BodyNode class, and the point mass inertias of its soft skin. In our case, we only want the point mass inertias, so we should zero out the standard BodyNode inertia. However, zeroing out inertia values can be very dangerous, because it can easily result in singularities. So instead of completely zeroing them out, we will just make them small enough that they don’t impact the simulation:

Inertia inertia;

Lesson 2e: Make the shape transparent

To help us visually distinguish between the soft and rigid portions of a body, we can make the soft part of the shape transparent. Upon creation, a SoftBodyNode will have exactly one visualization shape: the soft shape visualizer. We can grab that shape and reduce the value of its alpha channel:

Eigen::Vector4d color = bn->getVisualizationShape(0)->getRGBA();
color[3] = 0.4;

Lesson 2f: Give a hard bone to the SoftBodyNode

SoftBodyNodes are intended to be used as soft skins that are attached to rigid bones. We can create a rigid shape, place it in the SoftBodyNode, and give some inertia to the SoftBodyNode’s base BodyNode class, to act as the inertia of the bone.

Find the function createSoftBody(). Underneath the call to addSoftBody, we can create a box shape that matches the dimensions of the soft box, but scaled down:

double width = default_shape_height, height = 2*default_shape_width;
Eigen::Vector3d dims(width, width, height);
dims *= 0.6;
std::shared_ptr<BoxShape> box = std::make_shared<BoxShape>(dims);

And then we can add that shape to the visualization and collision shapes of the SoftBodyNode, just like normal:


And we’ll want to make sure that we set the inertia of the underlying BodyNode, or else the behavior will not be realistic:

Inertia inertia;
inertia.setMass(default_shape_density * box->getVolume());

Note that the inertia of the inherited BodyNode is independent of the inertia of the SoftBodyNode’s skin.

Lesson 2g: Add a rigid body attached by a WeldJoint

To make a more interesting hybrid shape, we can attach a protruding rigid body to a SoftBodyNode using a WeldJoint. Find the createHybridBody() function and see where we call the addSoftBody function. Just below this, we’ll create a new rigid body with a WeldJoint attachment:

bn = hybrid->createJointAndBodyNodePair<WeldJoint>(bn).second;
bn->setName("rigid box");

Now we can give the new rigid BodyNode a regular box shape:

double box_shape_height = default_shape_height;
std::shared_ptr<BoxShape> box = std::make_shared<BoxShape>(


To make the box protrude, we’ll shift it away from the center of its parent:

Eigen::Isometry3d tf(Eigen::Isometry3d::Identity());
tf.translation() = Eigen::Vector3d(box_shape_height/2.0, 0, 0);

And be sure to set its inertia, or else the simulation will not be realistic:

Inertia inertia;
inertia.setMass(default_shape_density * box->getVolume());

Lesson 3: Setting initial conditions and taking advantage of Frames

Find the addObject function in the MyWorld class. This function will be called whenever the user requests for an object to be added to the world. In this function, we want to set up the initial conditions for the object so that it gets thrown at the wall. We also want to make sure that it’s not in collision with anything at the time that it’s added, because that would result in problems for the simulation.

Lesson 3a: Set the starting position for the object

We want to position the object in a reasonable place for us to throw it at the wall. We also want to have the ability to randomize its location along the y-axis.

First, let’s create a zero vector for the position: cpp Eigen::Vector6d positions(Eigen::Vector6d::Zero());

You’ll notice that this is an Eigen::Vector6d rather than the usual Eigen::Vector3d. This vector has six components because the root BodyNode has 6 degrees of freedom: three for orientation and three for translation. Because we follow Roy Featherstone’s Spatial Vector convention, the first three components are for orientation using a logmap (also known as angle-axis) and the last three components are for translation.

First, if randomness is turned on, we’ll set the y-translation to a randomized value:

  positions[4] = default_spawn_range * mDistribution(mMT);

mDistribution(mMT) will generate a random value in the range [-1, 1] inclusive because of how we initialized the classes in the constructor of MyWindow.

Then we always set the height to the default value: cpp positions[5] = default_start_height;

Finally, we use this vector to set the positions of the root Joint: cpp object->getJoint(0)->setPositions(positions);

We trust that the root Joint is a FreeJoint with 6 degrees of freedom because of how we constructed all the objects that are going to be thrown at the wall: They were all given a FreeJoint between the world and the root BodyNode.

Lesson 3b: Add the object to the world

Every object in the world is required to have a non-empty unique name. Just like Joint names in a Skeleton, if we pass a Skeleton into a world with a non-unique name, the world will print out a complaint to us and then rename it. So avoid the ugly printout, we’ll make sure the new object has a unique name ahead of time:


And now we can add it to the world without any complaints: cpp mWorld->addSkeleton(object);

Lesson 3c: Compute collisions

Now that we’ve added the Skeleton to the world, we want to make sure that it wasn’t actually placed inside of something accidentally. If an object in a simulation starts off inside of another object, it can result in extremely non-physical simulations, perhaps even breaking the simulation entirely. We can access the world’s collision detector directly to check make sure the new object is collision-free:

dart::collision::CollisionDetector* detector =
detector->detectCollision(true, true);

Now we shouldn’t be surprised if the other objects are in collision with each other, so we’ll want to look through the list of collisions and check whether any of them are the new Skeleton:

bool collision = false;
size_t collisionCount = detector->getNumContacts();
for(size_t i = 0; i < collisionCount; ++i)
  const dart::collision::Contact& contact = detector->getContact(i);
  if(contact.bodyNode1.lock()->getSkeleton() == object
     || contact.bodyNode2.lock()->getSkeleton() == object)
    collision = true;

If the new Skeleton was in collision with anything, we’ll want to remove it from the world and abandon our attempt to add it:

  std::cout << "The new object spawned in a collision. "
            << "It will not be added to the world." << std::endl;
  return false;

Of course we should also print out a message so that user understands why we didn’t throw a new object.

Lesson 3d: Creating reference frames

DART has a unique feature that we call Frame Semantics. The Frame Semantics of DART allow you to create reference frames and use them to get and set data relative to arbitrary frames. There are two crucial Frame types currently used in DART: BodyNodes and SimpleFrames.

The BodyNode class does not allow you to explicitly set its transform, velocity, or acceleration properties, because those are all strictly functions of the degrees of freedom that the BodyNode depends on. Because of this, the BodyNode is not a very convenient class if you want to create an arbitrary frame of reference. Instead, DART offers the SimpleFrame class which gives you the freedom of arbitarily attaching it to any parent Frame and setting its transform, velocity, and acceleration to whatever you’d like. This makes SimpleFrame useful for specifying arbitrary reference frames.

We’re going to set up a couple SimpleFrames and use them to easily specify the velocity properties that we want the Skeleton to have. First, we’ll place a SimpleFrame at the Skeleton’s center of mass:

Eigen::Isometry3d centerTf(Eigen::Isometry3d::Identity());
centerTf.translation() = object->getCOM();
SimpleFrame center(Frame::World(), "center", centerTf);

Calling object->getCOM() will tell us the center of mass location with respect to the World Frame. We use that to set the translation of the SimpleFrame’s relative transform so that the origin of the SimpleFrame will be located at the object’s center of mass.

Now we’ll set what we want the object’s angular and linear speeds to be:

double angle = default_launch_angle;
double speed = default_start_v;
double angular_speed = default_start_w;
  angle = (mDistribution(mMT) + 1.0)/2.0 *
      (maximum_launch_angle - minimum_launch_angle) + minimum_launch_angle;

  speed = (mDistribution(mMT) + 1.0)/2.0 *
      (maximum_start_v - minimum_start_v) + minimum_start_v;

  angular_speed = mDistribution(mMT) * maximum_start_w;

We just use the default values unless randomization is turned on.

Now we’ll convert those speeds into directional velocities:

Eigen::Vector3d v = speed * Eigen::Vector3d(cos(angle), 0.0, sin(angle));
Eigen::Vector3d w = angular_speed * Eigen::Vector3d::UnitY();

And now we’ll use those vectors to set the velocity properties of the SimpleFrame:

center.setClassicDerivatives(v, w);

The SimpleFrame::setClassicDerivatives() allows you to set the classic linear and angular velocities and accelerations of a SimpleFrame with respect to its parent Frame, which in this case is the World Frame. In DART, classic velocity and acceleration vectors are explicitly differentiated from spatial velocity and acceleration vectors. If you are unfamiliar with the term “spatial vector”, then you’ll most likely want to work in terms of classic velocity and acceleration.

Now we want to create a new SimpleFrame that will be a child of the previous one:

SimpleFrame ref(&center, "root_reference");

And we want the origin of this new Frame to line up with the root BodyNode of our object:


Now we’ll use this reference frame to set the velocity of the root BodyNode. By setting the velocity of the root BodyNode equal to the velocity of this reference frame, we will ensure that the overall velocity of Skeleton’s center of mass is equal to the velocity of the center Frame from earlier.


Note that the FreeJoint uses spatial velocity and spatial acceleration for its degrees of freedom.

Now we’re ready to toss around objects!

Lesson 4: Setting joint spring and damping properties

Find the setupRing function. This is where we’ll setup a chain of BodyNodes so that it behaves more like a closed ring.

Lesson 4a: Set the spring and damping coefficients

We’ll want to set the stiffness and damping coefficients of only the DegreesOfFreedom that are between two consecutive BodyNodes. The first six degrees of freedom are between the root BodyNode and the World, so we don’t want to change the stiffness of them, or else the object will hover unnaturally in the air. But all the rest of the degrees of freedom should be set:

for(size_t i=6; i < ring->getNumDofs(); ++i)
  DegreeOfFreedom* dof = ring->getDof(i);

Lesson 4b: Set the rest positions of the joints

We want to make sure that the ring’s rest position works well for the structure it has. Using basic geometry, we know we can compute the exterior angle on each edge of a polygon like so:

size_t numEdges = ring->getNumBodyNodes();
double angle = 2*M_PI/numEdges;

Now it’s important to remember that the joints we have between the BodyNodes are BallJoints, which use logmaps (a.k.a. angle-axis) to represent their positions. The BallJoint class provides a convenience function for converting rotations into a position vector for a BallJoint. A similar function also exists for EulerJoint and FreeJoint.

for(size_t i=1; i < ring->getNumJoints(); ++i)
  Joint* joint = ring->getJoint(i);
  Eigen::AngleAxisd rotation(angle, Eigen::Vector3d(0, 1, 0));
  Eigen::Vector3d restPos = BallJoint::convertToPositions(

  // TODO: Set the rest position

Now we can set the rest positions component-wise:

  for(size_t j=0; j<3; ++j)
    joint->setRestPosition(j, restPos[j]);

Lesson 4c: Set the Joints to be in their rest positions

Finally, we should set the ring so that all the degrees of freedom (past the root BodyNode) start out in their rest positions:

for(size_t i=6; i < ring->getNumDofs(); ++i)
  DegreeOfFreedom* dof = ring->getDof(i);

Lesson 5: Create a closed kinematic chain

Find the addRing function in MyWindow. In here, we’ll want to create a dynamic constraint that attaches the first and last BodyNodes of the chain together by a BallJoint-style constraint.

First we’ll grab the BodyNodes that we care about:

BodyNode* head = ring->getBodyNode(0);
BodyNode* tail = ring->getBodyNode(ring->getNumBodyNodes()-1);

Now we want to compute the offset where the BallJoint constraint should be located:

Eigen::Vector3d offset = Eigen::Vector3d(0, 0, default_shape_height / 2.0);
offset = tail->getWorldTransform() * offset;

The offset will be located half the default height up from the center of the tail BodyNode.

Now we have everything we need to construct the constraint:

auto constraint = std::make_shared<dart::constraint::BallJointConstraint>(
      head, tail, offset);

In order for the constraint to work, we’ll need to add it to the world’s constraint solver:


And in order to properly clean up the constraint when removing BodyNodes, we’ll want to add it to our list of constraints:


And that’s it! You’re ready to run the full tutorialCollisions application!

When running the application, keep in mind that the dynamics of collisions are finnicky, so you may see some unstable and even completely non-physical behavior. If the application freezes, you may need to force quit out of it.