Transparent legend

I’ve been working lately on Matlab program for a client, which attempts to mimic the appearance and behavior of MetaTrader charts, which are extensively used by traders to visualize financial timeseries and analysis indicators.

Such charts are often heavily laden with information, and a legend can be handy to understand the meaning of the various plot lines. Unfortunately, in such heavily-laden charts the legend box typically overlaps the data. We can of course move the legend box around (programmatically or by interactive dragging). But in such cases it might be more useful to have the legend background become semi- or fully-transparent, such that the underlying plot lines would appear beneath the legend:

Matlab chart with a semi-transparent legend (click for details)
Matlab chart with a semi-transparent legend (click for details)

A few months ago I explained the undocumented feature of setting the transparency level of plot lines by simply specifying a fourth numeric (alpha) value to the Color property. Unfortunately, this technique does not work for all graphic objects. For example, setting a 4th (alpha) value to the MarkerFaceColor property results in an error. In the case of legends, setting a 4th (alpha) value to the legend handle’s Color property does not result in an error, but is simply ignored.

The solution in the case of legends is similar in concept to that of the MarkerFaceColor property, which I explained here. The basic idea is to use one of the legend’s hidden properties (in this case, BoxFace) in order to access the low-level color properties (which I have already explained in previous posts):

>> hLegend = legend(...);
>> hLegend.Color = [0.5, 0.5, 0.5, 0.8];  % should be 20%-transparent gray, but in fact opaque gray
 
>> hLegend.BoxFace.get
             AmbientStrength: 0.3
             BackFaceCulling: 'none'
                ColorBinding: 'object'
                   ColorData: [4x1 uint8]
                   ColorType: 'truecolor'
             DiffuseStrength: 0.6
            HandleVisibility: 'on'
                     HitTest: 'off'
                       Layer: 'back'
               NormalBinding: 'none'
                  NormalData: []
                      Parent: [1x1 Group]
               PickableParts: 'visible'
    SpecularColorReflectance: 1
            SpecularExponent: 10
            SpecularStrength: 0.9
                   StripData: []
                     Texture: []
            TwoSidedLighting: 'off'
                  VertexData: [3x4 single]
               VertexIndices: []
                     Visible: 'on'
 
>> hLegend.BoxFace.ColorData  % 4x1 uint8
ans =
  128
  128
  128
  255   % this is the alpha value

As can be seen from this code snippet, the RGB ingredients (but not the alpha value) of Color have passed through to the BoxFace‘s ColorData. The problem stems from BoxFace‘s default ColorType value of 'truecolor'. Once we set it to 'truecoloralpha', we can set ColorData‘s alpha value to a value between uint8(0) and uint8(255):

set(hLegend.BoxFace, 'ColorType','truecoloralpha', 'ColorData',uint8(255*[.5;.5;.5;.8]));  % [.5,.5,.5] is light gray; 0.8 means 20% transparent
Opaque (default) legend20% transparent legend50% transparent legend
0% transparent (default)20% transparent50% transparent
ColorData = [128;128;128;255][128;128;128;204][128;128;128;128]

Note 1: ColorData only accepts a column-vector of 4 uint8 values between 0-255. Attempting to set the value to a row vector or non-uint8 values will result in an error.

Note 2: once we update the BoxFace color, the legend’s standard Color property loses its connection to the underlying BoxFace.ColorData, so updating hLegend.Color will no longer have any effect.

BoxFace.ColorType also accepts 'colormapped' and 'texturemapped' values; the BoxFace.ColorBinding accepts values of 'none', 'discrete' and 'interpolated', in addition to the default value of 'object'. Readers are encouraged to play with these values for colorful effects (for example, gradient background colors).

Finally, note that this entire discussion uses Matlab’s new graphics engine (HG2), on R2014b or newer. For those interested in semi-transparent legends in R2014a or older (HG1), this can be done as follows:

% Prepare a fully-transparent legend (works in both HG1, HG2)
hLegend = legend(...);
set(hLegend, 'Color','none');  % =fully transparent
 
% This fails in HG2 since patch cannot be a child of a legend,
% but it works well in HG1 where legends are simple axes:
patch('Parent',hLegend, 'xdata',[0,0,1,1,0], 'ydata',[0,1,1,0,0], 'HitTest','off', 'FaceColor','y', 'FaceAlpha',0.2);  % 0.2 = 80% transparent

Note that making legends fully-transparent is easy in either HG1 or HG2: simply set the legend’s Color property to 'none'. In HG2 this causes a quirk that the legend background becomes non-draggable (you can only drag the legend box-frame – transparent HG2 backgrounds to not trap mouse evens in the same way that opaque backgrounds do (i.e., when the HG2 legend has Color='w', the background is draggable just like the box-frame). In HG1, this does not happen, so a transparent background is just as draggable as an opaque one.

In any case, as noted above, while making the legend fully-transparent is simple, making it semi-transparent is more problematic. Which is where this post could help.

If you’ve found any other interesting use of these undocumented/hidden legend properties, please share it in a comment below. If you’d like me to develop a custom GUI (such as the charting program above or any other GUI) for you, please contact me by email or using my contact form.

Categories: Handle graphics, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, Stock Matlab function, Undocumented feature

Tags: , , , ,

Bookmark and SharePrint Print

Leave a Reply


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *