React Native Skia: A Year in Review and a Look Ahead

With the latest advances in the React Native architecture, allowing direct communication between the JavaScript and native sides, we saw an opportunity to provide an integration for Skia, arguably the most versatile 2D graphic engine. We wondered: How should these two pieces of technology play together? Last December, we published the first alpha release of React Native Skia and eighty nine more releases over the past twelve months. We went from offering a model that decently fit React Native and Skia together to a fully-tailored declarative architecture that’s highly performant. We’re going on what kept Christian Falch, Colin Gray, and I busy and a look at what's ahead for the library.

One Renderer, Three Platforms (and Counting... )

React Native Skia relies on a custom React Renderer to express Skia drawings declaratively. This allows us to use the same renderer on iOS and Android, the Web, and even Node.js. Because this renderer has no coupling with DOM nor Native API, it provides a straightforward path for the library to be integrated onto new platforms where React is available and provided that the Skia host API is available as well.

A gif showing a breath animation on each different platform: iOS, Android, and web
The React renderer runs on iOS, Android and Web.
Because the renderer is not coupled with DOM or Native APIs, we can use it for testing on Node.js.

On React Native, the Skia host API is available via the JavaScript Interface (JSI), exposing the C++ Skia API to JavaScript. On the Web, the Skia API is available via CanvasKit, a WebAssembly build of Skia. We liked the CanvasKit API from the get-go: the Skia team did a great job of conciseness and completeness with this API. It is also based on the Flutter drawing API, showing great relevance to our use-cases. We immediately decided to make our host API fully compatible with it. An interesting side-effect of this compatibility is that we could use our renderer on the Web immediately; in fact, the graphic motions we built for the original project announcement were written using React Native Skia itself via Remotion, a tool to make videos in React.

A screenshot of a React Native Skia video tutorial showing the code to render the word hello in rainbow colours.
Thanks to Remotion, React Native Skia video tutorials are renderer using React Native Skia.

After the first release we received a great response from the community and we had at heart to ship the library to as many people as possible. The main tool to have Web like development and release agility for React Native is Expo. We coordinated with the team at Expo to have the library working out of the box with Expo dev clients and integrate it as part of the Expo GO client. Part of this integration with Expo, it was important to ship full React Native Web support.

A gif showing an Expo screen for universal-skia-demo code on the left hand side and the corresponding code executing on the right
Thanks to Expo, all you need to get started with React Native Skia is a Web browser

On each platform, different GPU APIs are available. We integrated with Metal on iOS, and OpenGL on Android and the Web. Finally, we found our original declarative API to be quite productive; it closely follows the Skia imperative API and augments it with a couple of sensible concepts. We added a paint (an object describing the colors and effects applied to a drawing) to the original Skia drawing context to enable cascading effects such as opacity and some utilities that would feel familiar to React Native developers. The React Native transform syntax can be used directly instead of matrices, and images can be resized in a way that should also feel familiar.

The Road to UI Thread Rendering

While the original alpha release was able to run some compelling demos, we quickly identified two significant bottlenecks:

  1. Using the JavaScript thread. Originally we only ran parts of the drawings on the JS thread to collect the Skia drawing commands to be executed on another thread. But this dependency on the JS thread was preventing us from displaying the first canvas frame as fast as possible. In scenarios where you have a screen transition displaying many elements, including many Skia canvases, locking the JavaScript thread for each canvas creates a short delay that’s noticeable on low-end devices.
  2. Too many JSI allocations. We quickly came up with use cases where a drawing would contain a couple of thousand components. This means thousands of JSI object allocations and invocations. At this scale, the slight overhead of using JSI ( instead of using C++ directly) adds up to something severely noticeable.

Based on this analysis, it was clear that we needed a model to

  1. execute drawings entirely on the UI thread
  2. not rely on JSI for executing the drawing.

That led us to design an API called Skia DOM. While we couldn't come up with a cool name for it, what's inside is super cool.

The Skia DOM API allows us to express any Skia drawing declaratively. Skia DOM is platform agnostic. In fact, we use a C++ implementation of that API on iOS and Android and a JS implementation on React Native Web. This API is also framework agnostic. It doesn’t rely on concepts from React, making it quite versatile, especially for animations.

Behind the scenes, Skia DOM keeps a source of truth of the drawing. Any change to the drawing recomputes the necessary parts of the drawing state and only these necessary parts, allowing for incredible performance levels.

The Skia DOM API allows to execute Skia drawings outside the JavaScript thread.
The Skia DOM API allows to execute Skia drawings outside the JavaScript thread.
  1. The React reconciler builds the SkiaDOM, a declarative representation of a Skia drawing via JSI.
  2. Because the SkiaDOM has no dependencies with the JavaScript thread, it can always draw on the UI thread and the first time to frame is very fast.
  3. Another benefit of the SkiaDOM API is that it only computes things once. It can receive updates from the JS or animation thread. An update will recompute all the necessary parts of a drawing.
  4. The Skia API is directly available via a thin JSI layer. This is useful to build objects such as paths or shaders.

Interestingly enough, when we started with this project, we took a lot of inspiration from existing projects in the Skia ecosystem such as CanvasKit. With Skia DOM, we have created a declarative model for Skia drawing that can be extremely useful for projects outside the React ecosystem.

The Magic Of Open Source

For React Native Skia to be a healthy open-source project, we focused on extensibility and quality assurance. React Native Skia provides extension points allowing developers to build their own libraries on top of it. And the community is already taking advantage of it. Two projects, in particular, have caught our attention.

The first one extends React Native Skia with the Skottie module. Skottie is a Lottie player implemented in Skia. While we don’t ship the Skottie module part of React Native Skia, we made sure that library developers can use our C++ API to extend it with any module they wish. That means we can keep the size of the core library small while letting developers opt-in for the extra modules they wish to use.

A gif of 5 different coloured square lego blocks sliding around each other
Skottie is an implementation of Lottie in Skia

Of all our great open-source partners, none has taken the library on such a crazy ride as the Margelo agency did. The React Native Vision Camera is a project that allows React Native developers to write JavaScript plugins to process camera frames on the UI frame. The team has worked hard to enable Skia image filters and effects to be applied in real time onto camera frames.

A gif showing how the Skia shader applies it’s image filters to a smartphone camera.
A Skia shader is applied on every camera frame

React Native Skia is written in TypeScript and C++. As part of the project quality assurance, we heavily rely on static code analysis for both languages. We also built an end-to-end test suite that draws each example on iOS, Android, and Web. Then we check that the drawings are correct and identical on each platform. We can also use it to test for Skia code executions where the result is not necessarily a drawing but can be a Skia object such as a path for instance. By comparing results across platforms, we gained tons of insights on Skia (for instance, we realized how each platform displays fonts slightly differently). And while the idea of building reliable end-to-end testing in React Native can seem daunting, we worked our way up (by starting from node testing only and then incrementally adding iOS and Android) to a test environment that is really fun and has substantially helped improve the quality of the library.

A gif showing a terminal window running tests. On the right hand side of the image is a phone showing the tests running.
Tests are run on iOS, Android, and Web and images are checked for correctness

We also worked on documentation. Docusaurus appears to be the gold standard for documenting open-source project and it hasn’t disappointed. Thanks to Shiki Twoslash, we could add TypeScript compiler checking to our documentation examples. Allowing us to statically check that all of our documentation examples compile against the current version, and that the example results are part of the test suite.

A screenshot of the indices page on React Native Skia Docs
Thanks to Docusaurus, documentation examples are also checked for correctness.

A Look Ahead to 2023

Now that we have a robust model for UI thread rendering with Skia DOM, we’re looking to use it for animations. This means butter smooth animation even when the JavaScript thread is not available. We have already prototyped Skia animations via JavaScript worklets and we are looking to deliver this feature to the community. For animations, we are also looking at UI-thread-level integration between Skia and Reanimated. As mentioned in a Reanimated/Skia tutorial, we believe that a deep integration between these two libraries is key.

We’re also looking to provide advanced text layouts using the Skia paragraph module. Advanced text layouts will enable a new range of use cases such as advanced text animations which are currently not available in React Native as well as having complex text layouts available alongside existing Skia drawings.

A gif showing code on the left hand side and the result on the left which is a paragraph automatically adjusting upon resize
Sneak peek at the Skia paragraph module in React Native

Can Skia take your React Native App to the next level in 2023? Let us know your thoughts on the project discussion board, and until then: Happy Hacking!

William Candillon is the host of the “Can it be done in React Native?” YouTube series, where he explores advanced user-experiences and animations in the perspective of React Native development. While working on this series, William partnered with Christian to build the next-generation of React Native UIs using Skia.

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