Programming Basics

Programming theory basics

Programming and programs

Let's define what is programming. Sure we can say that programming is a process of creating computer programs, it would be correct, but not very useful. Let's say, programming — is communication with a computer, it`s how you can "speak" with this device. The more accurate definition would be: giving precise instructions to a computer to perform specific tasks. Moreover, anything you want your computer to execute should be expressed in a way that your computer will understand. And the only thing computers understand is a program written in particular programming language.

You can imagine programs as blocks. The program could be simple (like a lonely small block of code), or it could be more sophisticated and combined with numerous small blocks linked together. How we link blocks we will describe later in data types section.

One important aspect of programming which worth to learn at the early stages is comments. Comment is a note in program code for humans, for those people who could read the code later, including a program author. One of the basement law of programming speaks:

Code is read much more often than it is written.

So you can expect that you write a comment for yourself and its a must follow practice. Always comment your code precisely!

A particular example: when you copy a file from one folder to another your OS execute specific program.


As you can speak different languages, computers understand different programming languages also. The written rules for each language (the alphabet, words and sentence structure, etc) is what we can call a syntax. Each programming language has its own syntax. Once you learn one of them it's more and more easy to learn another.

VEX syntaxis examples:

  • You should end every sentence with a semicolon: ;

  • Comments line should start with a double slash: //

Python syntaxis examples:

  • You should separate your sentences with Tab (4 spaces)

  • Comments line should start with a hash: #

Data types

The concept of data type is much more easy to understand than to explain. Let's define what is data first. Data is any piece of information you are dealing with inside your program (code). It's important to understand that data is not a part of the code (program) itself. It is something that "comes inside" your program from the outer environment (everything around your program block).

You can imagine data pieces as blocks as well, but this blocks, unlike programs, do not do anything, just holds information.

Now we can clarify links between different programs we speak above in Programming section. In addition to program input (when something come inside the program), the program can produce something (data) and give it away (output data). And usually, programs modify input data and output (return) the results of the modifications. This data flow between blocks of programs can be imagined as lines between blocks and this is how we link blocks (programs) together.

For example, if we have a program which copies files from folder A to a folder B (when user selects a file in explorer and press Ctrl + C in folder A and Ctrl + V in folder B) the input data here is a name with a path of the copied file (C:/temp/ Giving a program file path as input we let it know what file it needs to copy, so the program can do the job. Another data examples: list of students in a class, the current time in Michigan, number of wheels in a car, etc.

Obviously, if data could be any piece of information that comes into a program we need to sort out(structure) somehow all varieties of this information, otherwise, we would not be able to deal with it efficiently. The number of options in which form the information could be presented is limited. A number of wheels in a car is a digit. List of students is a stack of characters (students names). Time is also a digit. And a path to a file is also a stack of characters.

Data type — is exact form in which any piece of information in a computer program can be represented.

We will examine most used in VEX data types:

Integer — a whole numbers: int numberOfIterations = 256; Float — a fractional number: float PI = 3.14159; Vector — a set of 3 floats: vector color = {1.0, 0.0, 0.256}; String — a text, set of characters: string phrase = 'Hello, World!'; Array — a set of values with the same data type: string letters[] = {'A', 'B', 'C'};

To process array data type we use loop construction, the loop allows applying some actions to each element of the array.


Variable — is a container served to store data. Imagine a variable like a box with coins (or any other volume with any other items of the same type inside).

The current variable can hold only one data type. For example, you can`t store integer and string in one variable. In other words, each data type requires its own variable.

In VEX when you create (declare) a variable you should define the data type and variable name:

// Set path to the source file
string pathToFile = 'C:/temp/';

Where "string" is definition of string data type for variable which has name "pathToFile" and C:/temp/ is a value for the variable.


A command is the smallest fraction of a program which performs a specific task. The definition of command may look almost the same as a program definition, but the program is a more general concept. In other words, a program consists of the commands. You can imagine commands as bricks which form the block of the program.

Commands exist within the given programming language, it predefined by the language itself. You write your programs using existing commands. For example, you will use copyfile() Python command to copy a file from one location to another if you will write your own copying programwith a Python language.

So basically coding process happens like this: you break your global program task into small command pieces and search for commands which could solve this pieces within a given programming language.

Arguments and objects

Commands also can have inputs and outputs of data as we discover with programs. The input for the command is called an argument:

// VEX command with argument example: print "Hello, World!"
printf('Hello, World!');

Here Hello, World is an argument (or input) of a VEX printf() function.

The output of the command it is an entity created by this command called object. In the case of the print command its hard to presume which object is being created. But let's imagine that you created a sphere in the scene with a Python command createNode('sphere'). You will get a sphere object in the scene, which you can select and do anything you need later. In addition to the object in the scene, you can create an object in the code, which you can select and do anything you need later (in the code). To create an object in the code you just need to assign a command to some variable and this variable would be our object in the code: shereObject = createNode('sphere'). So you can, for example, rename it: shereObject.rename('myShpere'). In other words you have your object in the scene and at the same time you can have an instance of this object in the code.


What if there is no appropriate command to solve your task in a given programming language? Write and use your own! Let`s define a function as a custom command to perform a specific taskinside you program.

Now we can assume that command is a built-in function in a certain language.

We define functions in VEX with data type that function will output (return) and function name, we place code for function in curly brackets { ... }:

// Define Hello World message function
string printHello(){
    printf('Hello, World!');
// Run Hello World functiion


  • "string" is data type that function returns,

  • "printHello" is function name,

  • printf('Hello, World!') is a code of our function which consist of one command printf()recieving "Hello, World!" string as an argument.


Loop is a concept which allows performing a specific task several times. It's repeating one or more command, function, program. It is used when you need to solve the same task with a numerous amount of objects. Loops are used widely to process arrays (see data types), so you can do something with each element of the array one by one.


  // Using a for loop to find a value in an array. 
  //   Variables: 
  //        i      : the loop index. Changes from start to finish 
  //        start  : the first index of the array. usually one 
  //        finish : the last index of the array. ( found with length(array) ) 
  //        array  : a list of integer numbers 
  //        search : the number we are looking for. 
 int array[100];              // note: in C++, we must specify how large the array is 
 int start  = 0;              // note you could simply use the constat 0 below 
 int finish = 100;            // must know how many elements in array 
 for (int i = start; i < finish; i++)     // ++ means add one to i 
     if (array[i] == search)  // note: for non-integers we would not use == 
         std::cout << "found the item" << std::endl;  // note: we often would not print 
                                     // the value, simply return it (if we 
                                     // were in a function). 

If you need to delete a bottom face of several cubes in your scene, you will write a function which would be able to delete bottom face of one cube (and this cube would be passed as input data (argument) into your function) and then repeat this function for every cube with a help of loop.

Check one more example — double intensity of all lights in the scene for Maya and Python.

Let's see how deleting cube face looks in pseudocode:

// Create a container for all cubes in scene (list variable)
listOfCubes = ['Cube_01', 'Cube_02', ... 'Cube_N']

// Create a procedure which will delete the bottom face of input cube
    find the bottom face of inputCube
    delete the bottom face of inputCube

// Apply deletion procedure for all cubes
for each object in listOfCubes run deleteFace()

Loop syntax in VEX:

// Create array with a list of students 
string listStudents[] = {'John','Dan','Sarah'};

// Print each student name
foreach ( string student;  listStudents){

Where string listStudents[] = {'John','Dan','Sarah'} is a definition of string array holding students names, foreach(string student; listStudents) is a loop definition: for each member student of array listStudents execute code in {}. And printf() is a VEX command which prints an argument student (student name), so each iteration we print a new name from the given array.

The printf() command expects arguments of string data type (you should "place" inside this command only string data: printf(stringInput)). So if we would process integer array we would need to convert integer data type to a string data type and it could be done with a construction printf('%d', integerVariable), where'%d', integerVariable means: substitute '%d' with currently processed integer element of array integerVariable.

// Create array with a students grades 
int listGrades[] = {10, 2, 9, 0};

// Print each grade from array
foreach(int grade;  listGrades){
    printf('The student grade is: %d', grade);
    // %s > stringVariable, %f > floatVariable, %d > integerVariable

Note, that you can have access to the index of the item in the loop in addition to item value:

foreach(int index; int grade;  listGrades){

Another option for loops in VEX:

// Print "Hello, World!" 10 tims
for (int n=0; n<10; n++){
    printf('Hello, World!');  

Where for (int n=0; n<9; n++) is a loop definition: start from 0 (n=0), until we reach 9 (n<9), with a step of 1 (n++) execute everything located in {} — print "Hello, World!".

Going deeper, n++ is a "syntaxis sugar" (more readble or short form) for n = n + 1 and a step of 1 means we will run code inside the curly brackets every step from 0 to 9 (what will give us 10 times repetition). We can run a code with a different step value, n = n + 2 will skip every second iteration, but never mind, most of the time n++ will work for you.

Loop Iterations

So you repeat a block of code several times with a loop. Each time you repeat a code inside the loop you doing one iteration. In this code for (int n = 0; n < 9; n++), the n is iteration number - integer variable that you have access in the loop.. In this code foreach(int grade; listGrades) we also have iterations — when each time executing the code inside the loop, we just don`t have a explit variable for them in this case.


Conditions are used when you need to act differently depending on circumstances. You check if a particular condition is true or false and run different code depending on the answer. Conditions represented as an if-else statements almost in any programming language. If there is rain outside I would take an umbrella, otherwise, I will leave the umbrella at home.

The else statement is optional: "if there is a rain outside I would take an umbrella" will work as well. Conditions could be nested and combined to describe more complex algorithm: if there is rain outside and the rain is heavy I would stay at home, but if the rain is not so bad I would take an umbrella and go out.

// Define constant variables
int a = 10;
int b = 10;
// Check if vriables are equal
if (a/b == 1){
    printf ('A egual B');

Where (a/b == 1) is a checked condition: if A divided by B is an equal of one. Why we use ==instead of =? In a case with conditions, the sign you are checking condition with (sign between compared items, a/b and 1) is called condition operator. The equal sign = means that you assign a value to a variable, to check equality in a condition we have to use == operator.

Common condition operators:

  • Does A equal to B: A == B

  • Does A not equal to B: A != B

  • Does A grater or equel to B: A >= B

In conjunction with the conditional operators you may use logical operator like AND, OR and NOT. If the rain is heavy and I have an umbrella and I don't have a cold — go outside.

Now you are hopefully ready to complete VEX tutorials. If you are interested in more fancy coding stuff, go ahead and read the next section.

Programming theory next steps

This is not a necessary section for starting VEX experiments but it could be useful for curious minds. Here we can go further from the basics and learn about pseudocode, dictionaries, algorithms and abstraction.


Pseudocode — is a form of a computer program for human reading. It's a computer program brief written in usual sentences. Usually its a first stage of program creation, you formalize all tasks as a pseudocode and then "convert" this code to a computer program with a desirable computer language.


Dictionary is a special data type which can store information in form KEY : VALUE. The KEY should only be a string and the VALUE could hold any data type (even dictionary and such nested dictionary able to hold quite complex data structures).

Dictionary is a very powerful way to store complex data sets, you can imagine them as a shelf with containers (which could store any items — any data types). You can find a container (and get its content) by the name (KEY).

For example: colors = {'RED': [1,0,0], 'GREEN':[0,1,0], 'BLUE':[0,0,1]}

This will give you a palette of necessary colors and you can use colors in your code: pointColor = colors('RED') // Returns [1, 0, 0]

VEX do not support dictionaries directly.

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