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Swift Student Challenge

A few days ago, Apple announced the winners of their Swift Student Challenge. I had applied and used my “taking a test” tactic, which was to hit ‘submit’ and then promptly erase the whole thing from my brain. (What’s done is done, and I feel silly worrying about something I have no control over.)

So when I got the email that “my status was updated” it was a bit of a surprise.

And when I clicked through the link (because, of course, they can’t just say in the email, you have to sign in) I was in for more of a surprise.

My submission had been accepted. I’m one of 350 students around the world whose work sufficiently impressed the judges at Apple.

Screenshot from Apple Developer website. It reads: Congratulations! Your submission has been selected for a WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge award. You'll receive an exclusive WWDC20 jacket and pin set at the mailing address you provided on your submission form. You'll also be able to download pre-release software, request lab appointments, and connect with Apple engineers over WWDC20 content on the forums. In addition, one year of individual membership in the Apple Developer Program will be assigned free of charge to eligible accounts of recipients who have reached the age of majority in their region. For details, see the WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge Terms and Conditions.
Neat!

Now, throughout the whole process of applying, I was my usual secretive self. I think two people knew that I was applying at all, much less what I was working on. Since it’s over with, though, it’s time for the unveiling.

What I made

I wanted to bring back a concept I’ve played with before: cellular automata. A few days before the competition was announced, I’d seen a video that really caught my interest.

Well hey, I thought, I’ve got some code for running cellular automata. I want to learn Swift Playgrounds. And I’ve been having fun with SwiftUI. Let’s combine those things, shall we?

The first big change was a visual history; when a cell dies, I don’t want it to just go out, I want it to fade slowly, leaving behind a trail of where the automata have spread.

The second was rewriting all the visuals in SwiftUI, which was a fun project. Animation timings took me a bit to get right, as did figuring out how to do an automated ‘update n times a second’ in Combine. The biggest issue I had, actually, was performance – I had to do some fun little tricks to get it to run smoothly. (Note the .drawingGroup() here – that made a big difference.)

And third, I didn’t want it to just be “here’s some code, look how pretty,” I wanted to actually use the Playground format to show some cool stuff. This turned out to be the most frustrating part of the whole thing – the Swift Playgrounds app doesn’t actually support creating a PlaygroundBook, and the Xcode template wasn’t supported in the then-current version of Xcode.

But the end result? Oh, I’m quite happy with it. PlaygroundBooks are cool once you get past how un-documented they are. You can, to borrow a Jupyter turn of phrase, mix code and prose in a lovely, interactive way.

Screenshot of the 'Grid' page of the playground book.  The full text is at https://github.com/grey280/SwiftLife/blob/master/Swift%20Student%20Submission.playgroundbook/Contents/Chapters/Chapter1.playgroundchapter/Pages/Grid.playgroundpage/main.swift
Don’t worry, the real version (and some videos) are below.

Doing the actual writing was pretty fun. This is a concept I’ve spent a lot of time learning about, just because it captured my interest, and I wanted to share that in a fun way.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the result. If you’d like to see more, I’ve made recordings of the ‘randomized grid’ and ‘Wolfram rule’ pages running, and the actual playground is available on GitHub.

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