Classes and objects in matlab: the quick and dirty way

Kevin Murphy, 19 November 2005

I found a really easy way to implement classes in matlab, which makes them act just like structs, but with proper function name overloading. I explain this briefly below. For more details, see mathworks official documentation on objects/classes.
See also some guidelines from CUED. For some examples of software systems that use classes/ objects, see BNT (Bayes net toolbox) or Spider (toolbox for iid classification and regression problems).

Why bother with objects/ classes?

There are several advantages to using matlab classes.

Multiple versions of the same function

With classes, you can implement 2 or more versions of the same function and give them the same name, and let matlab decide which version to use. (This is called dynamic dispatching.) Normally if you have 2 functions with the same name, both on your path, only one is visible (this is called name-space pollution). But if you use classes, you can have private name spaces. Suppose you have two classes, one called 'dummy' and the other 'dummy2'. Both implement a function called 'gradient'. Then the following sequence will call dummy/gradient.m
d = dummy(...) % construct an object
gradient(d, ...)
whereas the following sequence will call dummy2/gradient.m
d = dummy2(...) % construct an object
gradient(d, ...)

Encapsulating internal state

Often we want to pass a function such as 'gradient' to another function, such as 'minimize', but 'gradient' needs lots of extra arguments. These can be passed in to minimize using varargin (as in the optimization toolbox), but a cleaner method is to make an object, such as one of type dummy, that contains all the data it needs inside of itself. Then just pass dummy to 'minimize', and when it calls 'gradient', the gradient function will have acccess to the internal state of the dummy object. (Note: in matlab 7, it is finally possible to make functions with lexical scoping, thus somewhat reducing this particular reason to use objects.)

How to write your own class

Suppose your class is called 'dummy'. You can download a minimal set of files to implement any class such as this here. We will explain them below.


The constructor should follow the outline below. Taking shortcuts here will cause problems (eg you will not be able to save/load your objects - a mistake I made in BNT.)
function obj = dummy(varargin)

% Constructor for a dummy class object.
% You must always pass one argument if you want to create a new object.

if nargin==0 % Used when objects are loaded from disk
  obj = init_fields;
  obj = class(obj, 'dummy');
firstArg = varargin{1};
if isa(firstArg, 'dummy') %  used when objects are passed as arguments
  obj = firstArg;

% We must always construct the fields in the same order,
% whether the object is new or loaded from disk.
% Hence we call init_fields to do this.
obj = init_fields; 

% attach class name tag, so we can call member functions to
% do any initial setup
obj = class(obj, 'dummy'); 

% Now the real initialization begins
obj.field1 = rand(2,3);
obj.field2 = varargin{1};


function obj = init_fields()
% Initialize all fields to dummy values 
obj.field1 = [];
obj.field2 = [];

Example of use

>> d=dummy(55)
dummy object
    field1: [2x3 double]
    field2: 55
>> demo(dummy)
this is a cool demo
>> d.field1=22
dummy object
    field1: 22
    field2: 55
>> d.field2
ans =