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JavaScript Modules

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Since the release of JavaScript version ES6 in 2015 and the switch to a yearly release schedule, the JavaScript language has been reborn as a powerful, full-featured language that is both fun and easy to use. The need for backward compatibility means that there are still a few clunky areas, but overall the language is in a good place now. We have been referring to these new features modern JavaScript, and we’ll continue to do that here.

Perhaps the most important new feature added to JavaScript recently is the ability to split our code up into many small modules. Using old-school JavaScript, we either had to write everything in one huge file, sometimes thousands of lines long, use a non-standard solution such as browserify or require.js, or include lots of separate <script> elements in our HTML files.

The new “official JavaScript modules” are called ES6 Modules, and using them, we can break our app down into discrete components, and put each of these components into a separate file. Doing so leads to a huge improvement in code style and re-usability.

As with our previous chapter on JavaScript, we’re won’t attempt a complete description of ES6 modules here. We’re only cover the bits you need to know to get through this book.

When writing modular JavaScript, each file is a module. So, we may refer to a module by its file name, for example, main.js, or simple as the main module.

Modules in Other Environments

Modules are an official feature of JavaScript so they will be supported everywhere… eventually. All modern browsers now support ES6 modules, however, Node.js has been slow to catch up. Fortunately, as of Node v14, ES6 modules are fully supported. However, when using older node versions, or very old browsers, you may need to do additional work to get modules working.

Modular Software Design

Modular software design opens up a new world of possibilities for structuring an application. Each module we create should have a single, well-defined responsibility. Additionally, each module should be self-contained, so far as possible, and rely on little or no knowledge of other modules.

These are tried and tested design patterns, known as the single responsibility principle, loose coupling, and high cohesion. A well-designed module has a single responsibility and is both loosely coupled and highly cohesive.

In other words, each module should do one thing only, and do that well, without relying on outside help. High cohesion means that the functions inside a module logically belong together. When writing code in this way, each module deals with a tiny fraction of the overall complexity, and even though our applications may grow and become complex over time, at any moment we should be dealing with just a few simple modules.

ES6 Module Syntax: import and export

ES6 modules introduced two new keywords to JavaScript: import and export. These allow us to write code in one file, export it, and then import it for use in a different file.

We’ll illustrate this here by are exporting a variable called x from a file named export.js.

export.js
    
const x = 'hello!';

export { x };

  

Later, we can import this variable into main.js, and then log the value to the console or use it in a calculation.

main.js
    
import { x } from './export.js';

console.log(x); // -> hello!

  

If you open up the inline IDE, you’ll see that we have set up these two files for you. You can use the IDE to test out the rest of the examples on this page.

Import and export Statements can be Placed Anywhere in Module Scope

We don’t have to wait until the end of the file to perform an export. Instead, we can do it immediately when we declare the variable:

export.js: you can export from anywhere in module scope
    
export const x = 'hello!';

  

We can place import and export statements anywhere in module scope.

Import and export statements can be placed anywhere in module scope
    
export const x = 'hello!';

import { someVariable } from './export2.js';

console.log('Hey there!');

export class Cat {
  ...
}

import { anotherVariable } from './export2.js';

export const y = 'goodbye';

  

However, we can’t import or export while in function or block scope.

Export statements must be in module scope, never function or block scope
    
const x = 'hello!';

function thisWontWork() {
  export { x };
  //=> Uncaught SyntaxError: Unexpected token 'export'
}

  
Likewise, import statements
    
function thisWontWork() {
  import { x } from './export.js';
  //=> Uncaught SyntaxError: Unexpected token '{'
}

  

In this book, for clarity, we’ll always place import statements at the top of a module and export statements at the bottom.

We will always place import statements at the top and export statements at the bottom.
    
import { someVariable } from './export2.js';

const x = 'hello!';

class Cat {
  ...
}

export { x, Cat }

  

Relative Import URLs

So far, we’ve been using relative URLs to import and export between the main.js and export.js files, which both reside in the src/ folder. We also use a relative URL in the <script> tag in index.html. You can tell when an import is relative because it will start with ./ or ../.

We’ve placed export.js in the same directory as main.js, so we’re using ./. If we had placed it in a subfolder called exported, for example, the import statement would look like this:

main.js: importing from the exported folder
    

import { x } from './exported/export.js';

console.log(x); // -> hello!


  

Importing from Other Websites

You can also import from other websites by specifying the full web address of the module. We use this style in 0.5: How to Include three.js in Your Projects when we show you how to import three.js from a CDN (content delivery network).

Importing modules from another website
    

import { Camera } from 'https://unpkg.com/[email protected]/build/three.module.js'


  

For the rest of this chapter, to keep things simple, we’ll stick with relative paths. For more info on how URLs work on the web, refer to a quick primer on URLs and paths on MDN.

Importing from Node Modules (NPM or YARN)

If you’re using a package manager like NPM or Yarn, you can install packages into the node_modules folder:

Installing the three package with NPM (run this on a command line after installing Node)
    

npm install three


  

Once you do this, you’ll find three.module.js in the node_modules/three/build folder. If you like, you can import it directly from there:

Importing directly from node_modules (possible, but not common)
    
import { Camera } from './node_modules/three/build/three.module.js'

  

However, it’s more common to use a bundling tool such as Rollup.js, Parcel, or Webpack in conjunction with a package manager. These bundlers follow a convention of allowing you use the package name as a shortcut when importing (in this case, the package name is three). If you are using a bundler, these are equivalent:

When using a bundler, these are equivalent
    

import { Camera } from './node_modules/three/build/three.module.js';

import { Camera } from 'three';


  

For now, remember that if you see an import that’s not a relative import or a website import, but instead start with a package name like three, it means the code is designed to be used with a bundler and you will not be able to run it directly.

These import statements can be run directly in the browser
    

import { Camera } from './node_modules/three/build/three.module.js';

import { Camera } from 'https://unpkg.com/[email protected]/build/three.module.js'

import { x } from './exported/export.js';

import { x } from '../../../scripts/test.js';


  
These import statements require a bundler
    

import { Camera } from 'three';
import { OrbitControls } from 'three/examples/jsm/controls/OrbitControls.js';
import { GLTFLoader } from 'three/examples/jsm/loaders/GLTFLoader.js';

import { throttle, debounce } from 'lodash-es';


  

There’s a lot more to using a bundler than this, which we won’t get into here. However, to keep our code clean, in most of the code examples in this book, including in the editor, we will use import { ... } from 'three'.

Named Exports

The presence of {} around x means that this is a named export. To import x we must refer to it by name, although once imported we can rename it if we need to.

You can have any number of named exports in a file. For example, here’s a file that exports twenty-six names, one for every letter of the alphabet (although we’ve skipped f-y for brevity):

export.js: exporting a name for every letter of the alphabet
    
const a = 'Abella';
const b = 'Bertrand';
const c = 'Courtney';
const d = 'Dewi';
const e = 'Eilinora';
...
const z = 'Zarathustra';

export {
  a,
  b,
  c,
  d,
  e,
  ...
  z,
};

  

We can import all of these named exports at the same time. Here, we import all twenty-six names (again, skipping the lines f-y):

main.js: import all twenty-six names
    
import {
  a,
  b,
  c,
  d,
  e,
  ...
  z,
} from './export.js';

console.log(a); // Abella
console.log(b); // Bertrand
console.log(c); // Courtney
console.log(d); // Dewi
...

  

Renaming Named Exports with the as Keyword

We can rename named exports using the as keyword, either when they are exported:

export.js: renaming variables on export
    
const a = 'Abella';
const b = 'Bertrand';
const c = 'Courtney';
const d = 'Dewi';
const e = 'Eilinora';
...
const z = 'Zarathustra';

export {
  a as abella,
  b as bertrand,
  c as courtney,
  d as dewi,
  e as eilinora,
  ...
  z as zarathustra,
};

  

Or, when they are imported:

main.js: renaming exports on import
    
import {
  a as abella,
  b as bertrand,
  c as courtney,
  d as dewi,
  e as eilinora,
  ...
  z as zarathustra,
}; from './export.js';

console.log(abella); //=> Abella
console.log(bertrand); //=> Bertrand
console.log(courtney); //=> Courtney
console.log(dewi); //=> Dewi
...

  

Using Namespaces with Named Imports

Importing a lot of things from a single module like this can get a bit messy. In these cases, it can be useful to import everything at once from a given module and save it to a namespace. We can do this using import * as <namespace>:

With a single line, we can import all twenty-six names from the previous file. We can then access them with dot notation:

main.js: importing to a namespace
    
import * as NAMES from './export.js';

console.log(NAMES.a); //=> Abella
console.log(NAMES.b); //=> Bertrand
console.log(NAMES.z); //=> Zarathustra

  

Note that we can’t rename the individual exports when doing this. It’s a common convention to use all capitals for namespaces, but it’s not required.

The THREE Namespace

You will often see the THREE namespace used when working with three.js. The three.js core contains hundreds of exports. It’s highly unlikely you’ll need to use all of them in a single file, but for quick tests, you can import them all at once and store them in a namespace.

main.js: importing the entire three.js core to the THREE namespace
    
import * as THREE from 'three';

  

Until the switch to modules, to use three.js you would include the core build/three.js file in your HTML using a <script> tag, and the THREE namespace would become globally available.

Now that we’ve switched to modules, we try to avoid using global namespaces. But the THREE namespace has been associated with three.js for years, and as the examples around the web are gradually converted to modules, it’s faster to continue using the namespace.

In this book, we’ll avoid using namespaces like THREE, preferring to import components as we need them. This will train us to keep modules focused. Rather than having a huge number of unused components available, we’ll only have the ones we need in any given module.

Default Exports

Unlike named exports, default exports allow us to export a value without naming the export. To create a default export, omit the {} braces and add the default keyword:

export.js: a default export
    
const x = 'hello!';

export default x;

  

Default exports don’t have names. Instead, we can name them whatever we like on import. Here, we import the variable x into the file main.js and call it hello.

main.js: importing a default export
    
import hello from './export.js';

  

The variable was originally called x, but that doesn’t matter on import for a default export.

You can only have one default export per file, otherwise, there’s no way for JavaScript to know what export we’re referring to. You can mix default and named exports in a single file, but we’ll avoid doing so. In fact, throughout this book, we’ll avoid using default exports completely.

Referencing JavaScript Modules from HTML

As we mentioned above, when using JavaScript modules, every file is a module. However, modern JavaScript, including ES6 modules, is built on top of old-school JavaScript, and all the old syntax and ways of doing things still work. In old-school JavaScript, files were not modules.

This means, when we pass the main.js module over to the browser, it can be interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. It’s an old-school “normal” JavaScript file.
  2. It’s a fancy new JavaScript module.

There’s no way to tell from a glance at the file name which interpretation is correct so we need to tell the browser.

To reference an old-school JavaScript file from HTML we use the <script> element. For example, here we include an old-school, non-modular JavaScript file called app.js in index.html:

index.html: using a script tag to include an old-school JavaScript file
    
<script src="./src/app.js"></script>

  

To tell the browser that the file is a module, we need to add the type="module" attribute. Here, we include our fancy new main.js module.

index.html: importing the main.js module
    
<script type="module" src="./src/main.js"></script>

  

We can also write JavaScript directly in an HTML <script> element:

index.html: an inline script element
    
<script>
  const x = 'welcome to JavaScript!';
</script>

  

However, that’s strictly old-school JavaScript. No import or export allowed. But, if we add the type="module" attribute, we can then write import statements directly in HTML. For example, we can bypass main.js and import the variable x directly from export.js into index.html.

index.html: an inline module script element
    

<script type="module">
  import { x } from './src/export.js';

  console.log(x);
</script>


  

Dynamic Imports

We’ll finish up this chapter with a brief look at dynamic imports. So far in this chapter, we’ve used static imports, which means are evaluated at load time. By contrast, dynamic imports are evaluated at run time.

Static imports use the import statement, while dynamic imports use the import() function.

With dynamic imports you can optionally load a module during the execution of your code. This might be useful, for example, if you want to create an app that can load any of the thirty or so 3D asset formats that three.js supports (there are more than thirty loaders there, but some are for textures and other things). Altogether, these loaders comprise around one megabyte of JavaScript, which is a lot to force upon a poor user if they only need a fraction of it. Instead, you can wait until the user sends you a model file, examine the file and say, “ayup, that there’s an FBX file, better be fetchin’ tha FBXLoader":

Dynamically importing the FBXLoader at run time
    

import('./vendor/three/examples/jsm/loaders/FBXLoader.js')
  .then((module) => {
    // use the loader module to load the model
  });


  

Again, take to note that we’re using the dynamic import() function, not a static import statement which would look like this:

Statically importing the FBXLoader at load time
    

import { FBXLoader } from './vendor/three/examples/jsm/loaders/FBXLoader.js'


  

As we’ll see in the next chapter, .then means that import() returns a Promise. Even better, we can use the await keyword, which we’ll also cover in the next chapter:

Dynamically importing the FBXLoader at run time using async/await
    

const module = await import('/vendor/three/examples/jsm/loaders/FBXLoader.js');
// use the loader module to load the model


  

That’s it for JavaScript modules. Next up, we’ll examine another important aspect of JavaScript: asynchronous programming, otherwise known as how to prevent your app grinding to a halt while you wait for something to load.

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