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Erin Catto's Box2D as a playground for optimization, for optimizing trajectories
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Using Function Optimization To Find Policies: Ball Run

Work for CMU RI 16-745: Dynamic Optimization

Leonid Keselman and Alex Spitzer

Simulation Environment

We've decided to work on Box2D (which this repository is a fork of). This is a 2D physics engines commonly used in games. We have fixed the common Ubuntu "GLSL 3.3 not supported" error that the normal Box2D repository has. Additionally we made our simulation a shared library so we could load it in our Python optimizer without having to reload the executable. This greatly (by a factor of 60) decreased our runtime for these simple simulations (the numbers in the table are the old execution numbers). Box2D's technical methods are well documented in a series of GDC talks, available online. We use a coefficent of restitution of 0.75.

Optimization Methods

We implemented many approaches, inlcuding random search. We found that gradient based methods were not useful as their performance greatly depended on their initalization -- if the ball wasn't going to impact the obstacle in either the original evaluations or the numerical gradient offsets, then there was zero gradient and the solvers immediately exited. Random parameter search was very effective, tending to produce good solutions in a competitive timeframe. CMA and Differential Evolution produced good solutions.

We tried a variety of different solvers, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Most solvers were initialized with a randomly sampled point in the problem domain.

  • CMA-ES is a derivative-free method that iteratively fits a multivariate Gaussian distribution to sampled costs, trending towards a minima in the solution space. We found that, while CMA sometimes returned good answers, its mean fitness never improved, suggesting that good configurations were only found due to the stochastic nature of the method.
  • Random samples a uniform distribution in the bounds of the problem domain. This can be a competitive method in black-box settings, and has some nice theoretical properties when little-to-nothing is known about the problem domain. We found that it worked surprisingly well, finding a good solution when given roughly 10,000 random trials.
  • Conjugate Gradient is a classic gradient-based method. We approximated gradients using numerical differences. Unfortunately when numerical gradient is small the solver returns the same solution, so we needed a fairly large step size to create any valid gradients. Additionally, if the initial conditions involve collisions between the ball and obstacles, there is zero gradient and the method returns immediately.
  • SLSQP is an implementation of Sequential Least SQuares Programming, a sequential quadratic programming method that iteratively fits a quadratic model using numerical second derivatives. This behaved much like the conjugate gradient method in practice, often getting zero gradient and exiting immediately.
  • Differential Evolution is a derivative-free optimization method, spawning a family of random samples and mixing together successful iterations. We used the default settings in the Python implementation, with a crossover probability of 0.7, a population size of 15, and a crossover strategy where the current best is mutated with the difference between two random samples in the population (this is a greedy variant of the Scheme DE1 proposed in the original paper)
  • MaxLIPO is an implementation of a recent method for global optimization. It assumes the function follows the largest empirically observed Lipschitz constant, and samples the highest-potential points with this assumption, similar to certain methods of Bayesian or model-based optimization. In practice, it has been shown to outperform standard implementations of Bayesian optimization. Additionally, this variant interleaves, in every other iteration, a run of a derivative-free trust-region method that does quadratic interpolation method near the current best-answer. This is similar to Powell's BOBYQA. Unfortunately, it seems to exhibit non-linear runtime with respect to iteration time, but was able to find a good solution

Results for a single object bounce

Optimizer Runtime (ms) Best Mean Std Dev
CMA-ES (n=100) 168 -14.0 18.4 17.7
CMA-ES (n=1000) 318 -15.1 12.5 21.4
CMA-ES (n=1,popsize=80) 60000 -15.5 None None
Random (n=10) 57 -7.4 26.9 8.3
Random (n=100) 575 -12.4 13.9 14.5
Conjugate Gradient (eps=1e-1) 92 -6.6 29.5 4.7
Conjugate Gradient (eps=1e-8) 50 30.0 30.1 1.0
SLSQP (eps=1e-1) 45 -8.1 29.6 3.8
SLSQP (eps=1e-8) 30 17.0 30.0 1.7
Diff Evolution (n=10) 1970 -14.7 6.4 18.1
Diff Evolution (n=100) 59618 -15.4 6.1 21.0
MaxLIPO 60000 -14.2 None None

Our best solution had a score of -15.5, with a rotation of roughly 23 degrees. The resulting ball trajectory is seen below.

Ball in cup

We setup a similiar task in our simulation -- getting a ball in a cup, using three obstacles. Our model includes both friction and restitution. In trying out different solvers, none of them provided adequete solutions except for differential evolution. CMA-ES, MaxLIPO, Random, and all gradient based methods were unable to provide a solution within 1 minute of runtime, whereas differential evolution was able to solve the problem in (usually) about 5-15 seconds. An example configuration is seen below.

Matching Real Wold Trajectories

To match the real world trajectory, we optimized acceleration due to gravity, the friction coefficient, the restitution coefficient, and the three obstacles positions and orientations. In order to align the simulated ball trajectory to the provided video ball trajectory, we normalized the coordinates to a common reference frame. The total error was the sum of the mean square distance from the interpolated simulated trajectory to the video trajectory and the interpolated video trajectory to the simulated trajectory. Both trajectory errors were weighted with a discount factor of 0.99 for the ground-truth trajectory. For the simulated trajectory, it is scaled to be ((0.99)^(n1))^(1.0/n2) where n1 is the number of simulated frames, and n2 is the number ground-truth frames; this keeps integral of weights over the trajectories roughly equal. Both CMA and Differential Evolution work adequetely with this formulation of cost, finding a valid solution in a few hundred solver iterations (equivalent to a few thousand function evaluations.).

Since Box2D doesn't model rolling friction, we model the ball as a regular polygon (namely, an octogon) and then get both rolling and friction (if using a circle, Box2D only allows the ball to either have angular velocity and no friction or no angular velocity and sliding friction).

We've included a script with several valid solutions, which, if built with gmake, and run from the Testbed folder, are in Testbed/ The GIFs below are from an earlier version of our solver (which was using a circular ball and quadratic discount factors) which perform worse than the current formulation. In the original case, we required several times more solver timesteps, only differential evolution performed successfully, and the ball often bounced out of final target location. The current solver in the repository (as of 2018-03-18), and described above, performs far better and always finds an acceptable solution in our testing (~10 runs).

Part 6 & 7

We implemented Bubble Ball Level 7. Below you can see that the simulation sometimes creates scenarios that are unlikely to occur in the real world. To better condition our solution space, we constrained the obstacle orientations to less than 30 degrees. Our optimized solution then closely matched our manual Bubble Ball solution. We emulated the Bubble Ball "wind" power up by adding an initial linear velocity to the ball in our simulation. Level 7 gives the user four obstacles to place in the field and our optimzer only needed two of them to successfully solve the challenge.

Example Usage

We ran our experiments using Python 3.6 on both Mac OS X and Linux. Dependencies include numpy, scipy, and various other optimization packages if using their solvers (e.g. cma for CMA-ES and dlib for MaxLIPO). In order to run the code, you will need to build the Box2D Engine using premake5 with the gmake action and execute


premake5 gmake
cd Build/gmake/
make -j -l config=release
cd ../../
<now can run examples from root>

If you experience an OpenGL error on Linux, try export MESA_GL_VERSION_OVERRIDE=3.3


python --part 3 random --opt_iters 100 --exp_iters 100
python --part 4 cma --exp_iters 5 --opt_iters 30000
python --part 5 differential_evolution --opt_iters 750
python --part 6 random --opt_iters 20000

Run scenario

Testbed must be run from (root)/Testbed. First argument is 0 or 1, depending on if you want a GUI. Second argument is gravity. Third argument is friction. Fourth argument is restitution. Remaining arguments are x,y,rotation,width,height,gravity for as many obstacles as desired. x,y,width,height are in some unit space, rotation is radians, gravity is 0 or 1 depending on if the obstacle has gravity affecting it. Below is an example of running a GUI example, with gravity -35, friction 1.2, restitution 0.45, and 6 obstacles, none of which are affected by gravity, the last 3 of which are size 4.0 x 0.8. This is a solution to part 5.

cd Testbed
../Build/gmake/bin/Release/Testbed 1 -34.85626715903946 1.238121876473342 0.44576273535632255 -18.0 24.4 0.0 1.0 0.4 0.0 -16.6 25.0 0.0 0.4 1.0 0.0 -19.4 25.0 0.0 0.4 1.0 0.0 -26.79677592743783 38.72327400584704 2.8682675964696074 4.0 0.8 0.0 -25.364051735494193 31.469818162961424 2.8423437289880864 4.0 0.8 0.0 -20.494546879990814 35.45538455381046 0.3531818391015964 4.0 0.8 0.0

During optimization, we instead link against Testbed_lib and call this float* main(int argc, char* argv[]) function directly with these arguments. The function returns a float array of x,y pairs for the ball trajectory. In the executable case, Testbed outputs this trajectory to standard output. Optimization can then feed any obstacles it desires and create any cost function it desires.


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  2. Shewchuk, J. R. (1994). An Introduction to the Conjugate Gradient Method Without the Agonizing Pain. Science, 49(CS-94-125), 64.
  3. Catto, E. (2005). Iterative dynamics with temporal coherence. Game Developer Conference, 1–24. Retrieved from
  4. Storn, R., & Price, K. (1997). Differential Evolution - A simple and efficient adaptive scheme for global optimization over continuous spaces. Journal of Global Optimization, 11(4), 341–359.
  5. Malherbe, C., & Vayatis, N. (2017). Global optimization of Lipschitz functions. Retrieved from
  6. Powell, M. (2009). The BOBYQA algorithm for bound constrained optimization without derivatives. NA Report NA2009/06, 39.
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