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Creating a WaveView to draw smooth waveforms

In this article I’m going to walk you through building a WaveView with SwiftUI, allowing us to create beautiful waveform-like effects to bring your user interface to life.

Watch the video here, or read the article below

Creating a wave effect is a simple, beautiful effect that can really bring your UI to life. In its simplest form you might use it a a continuous activity indicator for when your app is working on a task but you don’t know how long it will take, but if you layer several of them in various colors and opacities then you can create water-like effects and more.

Advance warning: there’ll be a small amount of mathematics involved to calculate our waveform, but I’ll break it down into simple steps.

To follow along, please create a new iOS project for SwiftUI, using the Single View App template.

Quick links

Creating a simple wave

To get started, we’re going to create a Wave struct that conforms to the Shape protocol. This will have two Double properties: how high our waves should be, and how frequent our waves should be.

So, start with this new SwiftUI view:

struct Wave: Shape {
    // how high our waves should be
    var strength: Double

    // how frequent our waves should be
    var frequency: Double
}

To begin with, we’re going to create a simple, fixed sine wave. The core of this calculation is fairly simple, and starts by dividing up our available space based on the wave frequency so that we know the size of our wavelength – how big each rise and fall should be.

Once we have that, we count from 0 to the width of our full space and do the following:

  • Find our current position relative to the size of our wavelength.
  • Put that through the sin() function to get a value between -1 and 1.
  • Multiply that by the strength property so our waves are made as big as requested.
  • Center the point vertically.
  • Add that point to a path.

All that needs to be done in the path(in:) for our WaveView. Here it is in Swift, with lots of comments added explaining each line:

func path(in rect: CGRect) -> Path {
    let path = UIBezierPath()

    // calculate some important values up front
    let width = Double(rect.width)
    let height = Double(rect.height)
    let midWidth = width / 2
    let midHeight = height / 2

    // split our total width up based on the frequency
    let wavelength = width / frequency

    // start at the left center
    path.move(to: CGPoint(x: 0, y: midHeight))

    // now count across individual horizontal points one by one
    for x in stride(from: 0, through: width, by: 1) {
        // find our current position relative to the wavelength
        let relativeX = x / wavelength

        // calculate the sine of that position
        let sine = sin(relativeX)

        // multiply that sine by our strength to determine final offset, then move it down to the middle of our view
        let y = strength * sine + midHeight

        // add a line to here
        path.addLine(to: CGPoint(x: x, y: y))
    }

    return Path(path.cgPath)
}

Note: You’ll get a warning that midWidth isn’t used. That’s OK, because we’ll be using it later.

Like I said, we’re going to improve on that soon, but first let’s use it in ContentView so you can see it in action:

struct ContentView: View {
    var body: some View {
        ZStack {
            Wave(strength: 50, frequency: 30)
                .stroke(Color.white, lineWidth: 5)
        }
        .background(Color.blue)
        .edgesIgnoringSafeArea(.all)
    }
}

Simple, but nice!

Tip: We’re using stride(from: 0, through: width, by: 1) to add one point to our Bezier path for every X position in our width, but if you found that was slow you could do every tenth point like this:

stride(from: 0, through: width + 10, by: 10)

If you look closely you’ll notice the line isn’t quite so smooth any more – try even higher values to see the line get increasingly jagged. Adding to width stops the line ending before it reaches the end.

Animating the wave

Our WaveView has properties to control its strength (or amplitude) and its frequency, but we can add a third to control its phase – a horizontal offset that lets us move the line either by hand or using animation.

Start by adding this property to WaveView:

// how much to offset our waves horizontally
var phase: Double

Now we can factor that into our call to sin() so that our position in the wave changes depending on phase:

let sine = sin(relativeX + phase)

Make sure and change the way we create WaveView in ContentView, to send in a phase value:

Wave(strength: 50, frequency: 30, phase: 0)

You can now try changing phase: 0 to a different value – try 10, 101, or whatever you want, and you should see the wave move along.

It’s good to have this control, but it’s even better to make it animate – to have our waveform move smooth across the screen. This takes a little work in SwiftUI, because we need to tell it what our animation actually does.

First, we need to define some state in ContentView that will store the current wave phase:

@State private var phase = 0.0

Second, we can pass that into the WaveView initializer, so we can control the phase over time:

Wave(strength: 50, frequency: 30, phase: phase)

And third, we can ask SwiftUI to animate phase to Double.pi * 2 when the ZStack is shown, by putting this modifier after edgesIgnoringSafeArea():

.onAppear {
    withAnimation(Animation.linear(duration: 1).repeatForever(autoreverses: false)) {
        self.phase = .pi * 2
    }
}

Tip: Using .pi * 2 here ensures our sine wave covers the full range of 0 to 1 then back to 0, so our animation loops flawlessly.

All that code is correct, and all that code is needed, but it won’t actually do anything – if you run the app you’ll see the waveform is still static.

The problem here is that SwiftUI doesn’t understand how to animate a waveform – it doesn’t know what that really means. It does know how to animate numbers, which means it can count from 1 through 10 for us over a period of time, so our job is to help it bridge that knowledge so it can animate our waveform.

Yes, we’re using withAnimation() to make our change, but that doesn’t do quite what you might think. Behind the scenes, SwiftUI will automatically update the phase property in ContentView to its new value, but then it will start interpolating from the old phase to the new phase and ask our waveform what we want to do with it.

We can update WaveView to receive that data by adding a new property called animatableData, which should be the same type as whatever we’re changing. This is computed: in the getter we’ll just send back phase, but in the setter we’ll set phase to be whatever is the new value that was passed in.

Add this property to WaveView now:

// allow SwiftUI to animate the wave phase
var animatableData: Double {
    get { phase }
    set { self.phase = newValue }
}

And now our animation will work – all the rest of it was fine, but now our WaveView is receiving the animation data from SwiftUI.

Adding a parabolic curve

The waveform looks okay, but we can do so much better with just a little mathematics by implementing a parabola, which is a curve that is U-shaped. This will make our waveform centered vertically on the left and right edges, but really wavy in the center – a bit like how Siri’s waves look.

I’ve made the calculations here as simple as possible, and I think you’ll agree the result looks significantly better – even if you’re not fond of math I hope you’ll give it a try!

Rather than dump the entire calculation on you at once, let’s build it up bit by bit.

Inside path(in:) we already have constants for width, height, midWidth, and midHeight. We need to add one more there, which will track 1 divided by midWidth.

Remember our loop counts over the width of the available space, adding to the Bezier path point by point. To make a parabola – a U-shape curve, we need to know how far we are to the horizontal mid-point, and that’s where our new property comes in.

First, add this below the previous four:

let oneOverMidWidth = 1 / midWidth

Now inside our loop we can calculate how far we currently are from the middle of our width, and multiply that by oneOverMidWidth. This will tell us how far we are from the horizontal center of our space, measured in the range -1 to 1.

Add this below let relativeX:

// find how far we are from the horizontal center
let distanceFromMidWidth = x - midWidth

// bring that into the range of -1 to 1
let normalDistance = oneOverMidWidth * distanceFromMidWidth

Tip: I’ve used the name normalDistance there because bringing all possible values into the range of -1 to 1 is called normalization.

Next, I want to factor that value into our drawing. We’re going to start off with something simple so you can understand what’s happening more clearly.

Right now we calculate our Y position like this:

let y = strength * sine + midHeight

We need to add another number to that to make our parabolic curve – our U-shaped curve.

To start with, we’re just going to use the normalDistance value we calculated a moment ago, without modifying it at all. So, make this constant after normalDistance:

let parabola = normalDistance

We’re going to make that more interesting in a moment, but it’s fine for now.

We can then factor that into our Y calculation like this:

let y = parabola * strength * sine + midHeight

I encourage you to run the app now so you can understand the next part more clearly. Our previous code generating a smooth, regular sine wave, but now our wave height changes: it’s big on the left and right edges, and small in the center.

You’re seeing our parabola in action – the U shape it generates is being applied so our wave height.

If you want to understand why this happens, launch the Grapher program that comes with macOS. (Yes, you have it installed – every Mac has it installed, it’s just that most people don’t know it’s there.) When it launches, select the default 2D graph.

If you want to see a parabolic curve in action, type this: y=2x^2. The “y=“ part should be there already, and typing the ^ part allows us to make the squared symbol. When you press return, Grapher will draw the curve and you’ll see what I mean about a U shape – the curve is shallow in the center, but is increasingly steep on the left and right edges.

So, those values are being multiplied into our wave height. normalDistance is a value between -1 and 1, so on the left edge we multiple the wave height by -1 and on the right edge by 1, but in the dead center we multiply by 0 so there’s no height at all.

Here, though, I want the opposite effect: I want big waves in the middle and nothing on the edges. To do that, we need to calculate our parabola as follows:

let parabola = -(normalDistance * normalDistance) + 1

Let’s break that down. First, normalDistance is a value in the range -1 to 1, so if we multiply that by itself we’ll up with a range with 1 on both sides with 0 in the middle.

For example:

  • If normalDistance were -1, then we’d be doing -1 x -1, which is 1.
  • If normalDistance were 1, then we’d be doing 1 x 1, which is also 1.
  • But for smaller values, such as 0, we’d be doing 0 x 0, which is 0.

So, now we have a values in the range 1...0...1, which is our U shape. Next we negate that using -(normalDistance * normalDistance), which means we now have values in the range -1...0...-1. And finally, we add 1 to it, to make values in the range of 0...1...0 – big waves in the middle, and no waves on the edges.

And that’s it! Run the app again to see our finished effect – I think it looks a lot more dynamic than the simple sine wave, and as you’ve seen we can modify our curve in all sorts of interesting ways.

Just for fun: multiple waves

We’ve created one wave, but we can use a ZStack to layer multiple offset waves if we want, applying a little transparency to the stroke to create a fading effect.

Try this and see what you think:

ForEach(0..<10) { i in
    Wave(strength: 50, frequency: 10, phase: self.phase)
        .stroke(Color.white.opacity(Double(i) / 10), lineWidth: 5)
        .offset(y: CGFloat(i) * 10)
}

Notice that I’ve taken the frequency down to 10, which I think looks better.

Run the app and see what you think – we’re done!

Challenges

There is so much scope to expand this project, even if only by experimenting with the various values we have available to us.

As well as experimenting, there are two things in particular I’d like you to try:

  1. Remove the offset from our overlapping waves so they directly overlap, then try changing their phase and color to see if you can get a variety of overlapping waves at different states.
  2. Apply a mask to the ForEach so that the center area is fully opaque but the left and right edges fade away to be invisible.

You can accomplish the first one with experimentation, but if you’re stuck on the second one try using a mask() modifier with a LinearGradient that uses clear/white/clear colors. I’ll post some example code below in case you get stuck, but I do recommend you try it yourself first!

Still here?

I’m going to assume that means you want to see a solution for the second challenge.

I’m just writing this so you can’t see my code by accident.

Seriously, this is your last chance before my code.

Okay, here we go:

ForEach(0..<10) { i in
    Wave(strength: 50, frequency: 10, phase: self.phase)
        .stroke(Color.white.opacity(Double(i) / 10), lineWidth: 5)
        .offset(y: CGFloat(i) * 10)
}
.mask(
    LinearGradient(gradient: Gradient(colors: [.clear, .white, .clear]), startPoint: .leading, endPoint: .trailing)
)

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