Building an Eclipse Theia application

URDF DesignerModern robotics is surely one of today’s most interesting topics you can be engaged in. However I’m not a robotics engineer and this post is not about building robots. It’s more about the sometimes underestimated problem of providing engineering teams with sophisticated tools that help to get their job done. The last 15 years I worked in many tooling related projects in the medical, automotive and aerospace industry. Eclipse’s mature rich client platform together with all its side projects like Xtext always was a solid basis to start with.

Otherwise IT rapidly moves forward and many cloud based applications impressively show what can be achieved with nowadays web technologies. A relatively new application framework that simplifies writing web based applications is Eclipse Theia. For more information about Theia please visit the website or read the excellent blog posts here.

Instead of programming the obligatory ‘Hello World command button application, I decided to step a little bit further and implemented the prototype of an URDF model designer. URDF is a simple XML format used to describe the visual aspects, kinematics and physics of rigid body robots. URDF is part of the open source robotics operating system ROS and is understood by the 3D simulation tool RVIZ.

Robots are defined in a simplified domain specific language from which appropriate XML files are generated automatically. A WebGl renderer displays the currently edited robot in a small window. The application was never intended to be used in production and covers only the visual elements of URDF. Anyway it was a challenging fun project and helped me to learn more about Theia’s core concepts.

The illustration below shows the overall application architecture. The source code together with a sample workspace is available on github.

The application basically consists of two components:

  • A Spring Boot based server that comprises the language server and URDF endpoints
  • A single Theia extension that provides language support and the preview control

As a Java developer I wanted to leverage and reuse my existing knowledge in server side programming. That’s why I used Xtext to create the URDF language server and Spring Boot to implement the business logic and endpoints.

To avoid CORS problems and for simplicity reasons, the UI sends all requests to a single Theia backend. The HTTP-Proxy component forwards all requests under a certain domain to the Java backend. Communication between LSP server implementation and LSP server contribution is achieved using web-sockets. If you are interested in HTTP proxy forwarding and LSP web-socket connection, both are implemented in this class.

Here you can see the final application showing URDF models for a KUKA LWR robot in action.


To be honest I’m not ready to give a serious final conclusion yet. What I can say so far is that Theia is definitely an interesting framework with a huge potential. As a next step I plan getting my feet wet with Eclipse Che to make my little URDF designer a real cloud based multiuser application. Hopefully afterwards I gained enough Theia programming experience to hand the final statement later.