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Virtual Classes

What would happen if you could overwrite your nested classes...

Ivica Aracic, Blogger

September 26, 2010

2 Min Read

Every programmer knows the benefits of polymorphism and virtual methods. But only few know about virtual classes (not to be mixed with virtual base classes from C++).

So what is a virtual class? It has its origins in BETA-Programming Language. Basically, it is a nested class (a class in a class), which can be overwritten. Just like a virtual method.

In a fictive C++ like language, an example would look similar to this:

class BaseGraph {
    virtual class Node {...};
    virtual class Edge {... Node source, target; ...};

class ColoredGraph : public BaseGraph {
    // overwriting Node and adding the color property to it
    virtual class Node {... Color color; ...};

Following things happen here:

  • all nested classes are declared as virtual (can be overwritten)

  • nested class Node ist overwritten in ColoredGraph

  • ColoredGraph::Node is a subclass of BaseGraph::Node

  • all existing references to Node in the context of the ColoredGraph get automatically bound to the overwritten class. Hence, ColoredGraph::Edge::source is a subtype of ColoredGraph::Node and it will have access to the color property. Note that Edge has not been changed at all!

Instantiation looks like this:

BaseGraph* g = new ColoredGraph;
g::Node* node = new g::Node;

The fancy things here are:

  • g::Node - Node as a property of the object g

  • late bound new operator - new g::Node will instantiate the Node class depending on the runtime type of g, in this case it will be ColoredGraph::Node.

This is so called family polymorphism (gbeta, Eric Ernst).

If you are interested in a bigger example demonstrating how virtual classes could be applied in the game-programming context, look at V. Gasiunas and I. Aracic. Dungeon: A Case Study of Feature-Oriented Programming with Virtual Classes. 2nd Workshop on Aspect-Oriented Product Line Engineering (AOPLE), Salzburg, Oct 2007.

Also an interesting thing: FeatureC++

I am really, really looking forward to see one day virtual classes being a part of the main-stream technology!

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