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DOI:   10.3217/jucs-007-05-0338

Computational Geometry - Some Easy
Questions and their Recent Solutions

Franz Aurenhammer
(Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria

Abstract: We address three basic questions in computational geometry which can be phrased in simple terms but have only recently received (more or less) satisfactory answers: point set enumeration, optimum triangulation, and polygon decomposition.

Key Words: Computational geometry, combinatorial geometry, point set data base, minimum-weight triangulation, polygonal skeleton
Categories: F.2.2

1 Introduction

Computational geometry is concerned with the algorithmic study of elementary geometric problems. Ever since its emergence as a new branch of computer science in the early 1970's, a fruitful interplay has been taking place between combinatorial geometry, algorithms theory, and more practically oriented areas of computer science. Computational geometry has been among the driving forces for developing advanced algorithmic techniques, data structures, and set­theoretic concepts. Parametric search, randomization, plane­sweep technique, fractional cascading, and ­nets are a some examples. On the other hand, interest has been renewed in elementary geometric and graph­theoretic concepts, like convex hulls, arrangements, Voronoi diagrams, triangular networks, and hyper­cubes. A fact which maybe fascinates many computational geometry researchers (including the author) most is that many questions in this area, which may have deep and complex answers, can be stated in an extremely simple and elegant way. The present paper is devoted to some questions of this kind. Choice is rather subjective than representative, and is mainly guided by the author's topics of interest within the past few years.

2 Which Sets of 10 Points Do Exist

A set of n points in the plane is the underlying structure for various problems in computational geometry. In fact, a finite set of points seems to be among the simplest geometric objects that lead to non­trivial geometric and algorithmic

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questions. Not surprisingly, most of the basic concepts and data structures in computational geometry have first been developed for point sets and later been generalized to more general objects like line segments, circles, polygons etc. Examples include the convex hull, the Voronoi diagram, and geometric search trees, just to name a few.

Quite a large subclass of problems is determined already by the 'combinatorial' properties of an n­point set S rather than by its metric properties. More precisely, look at all the straight­line segments spanned by the points in S. The way these segments cross each other turns out to be of importance, in the sense that point sets with identical crossing properties give rise to equivalent geometric structures. This is true for many popular structures like spanning trees, triangulations, polygonalizations, so­called k­sets, and many others.

Several of these structures lead to hard problems. For some of them, like counting the number of triangulations of a given point set, no subexponential algorithms are known [1]. For others, like for k­sets, the combinatorial complexity is still unsettled [21]. Sometimes even the existence of a solution has not yet been established, such as the question of whether any two given n­point sets (with the same number of extreme points) can be triangulated in an isomorphic manner [5]. To gain insight into the structure of hard problems, examples that are typical and/or extreme are often very helpful.

To obtain such examples usually complete enumerations on all possible problem instances of small size are performed. In our case this means to investigate all 'different' sets of points, where diffence is with respect to the crossing properties of the sets. This leads us to questions like, 'Which sets of, say 10, points do exist?'. The answer is surprisingly difficult, due to two reasons. First, the number of inequivalent point sets of size 10 is already in the millions (14 309 547, to be precise). Second, there seems to be no simple way to enumerate all these sets, because each increase in size gives rise to types which cannot be obtained directly from sets of smaller size. This may explain why it took until recently that the first complete data base on 10­point sets has been established; see Aichholzer et al. [7]. Below we describe, in a more formal style, the inherent difficulties of such a project, along with first applications and results obtained from the 'point set data base'.

2.1 The approach

An appropriate tool to reflect the crossing properties of a given point set has been developed quite a while ago. Goodman and Pollack [27] introduced the order type of a set {p1 , ... pn } of points as a mapping that assigns to each ordered triple i, j, k in {1, ... , n} the orientation (either clockwise or counter­clockwise) of the point triple pi, pj, pk. Two point sets S1 and S2 are said to be equivalent if they exhibit the same order types. That is, there is a bijection between S1 and S2

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Figure 1: Two equivalent sets of 5 points

such that any triple in S1 agrees in orientation with the corresponding triple in S2; see Figure 1 for an example. It is not hard to see that two line segments spanned by S1 cross if and only if the corresponding segments for S2 do. The goal is to enumerate all order types of size 10 (and less).

To this end, use can be made of the duality1 between point sets and line arrangements in the Euclidean plane. A line arrangement is the dissection of the plane induced by a set of n straight lines. As no direct way to enumerate these structures is known, we first produce all non­isomorphic arrangements of so­called pseudolines. A set of pseudolines is a set of simple curves which pairwise cross at exactly one point. Handling pseudolines is relatively easy in view of their equivalent description by wiring diagrams; see, e.g., Goodman [26]. Consult also Figure 2. We can read o a corresponding pseudo order type from each pseudoline arrangement, because the intersection orders on all the pseudolines uniquely determine the orientations of all element triples. Back in the primal setting, where each line potentially corresponds to a point, this leads to a list of candidates guaranteed to contain all different order types.

This leaves us with the problem of identifying all the realizable order types in this list, that is, those which can actually be realized by a set of points. Here we enter the realm of oriented matroids , an axiomatic combinatorial abstraction of geometric structures introduced in the late 1970s. As a known phenomenon, a pseudoline arrangement need not be stretchable, i.e., isomorphic to some straight line arrangement. There exist non­stretchable arrangements already for 8 pseudolines; see, e.g., Björner et al. [15]. As a consequence, our candidate list will contain non­realizable pseudo order types. Moreover, even if realizability has been decided for a particular candidate, how can we find a corresponding point set?

1Any of the well­known duality transforms used in computational geometry may serve this purpose, although none of them leads to a bijection in order type.

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Figure 2: A wiring diagram that can be stretched

As a matter of fact, the situation gets conceptually and computationally easier in the projective plane where ­ unlike in the Euclidean plane ­ inequivalent order types directly correspond to non­isomorphic line arrangements, and isomorphism classes of pseudoline arrangements coincide with (reorientation classes of) rank 3 oriented matroids. For size 10, there exist exactly 312 356 classes of these matroids, 242 of which are non­realizable; see [15, 26]. This knowledge can be put to use for our purposes in the following way.

Let be the candidate list of order types obtained from wiring diagrams (as sketched above). We group the members of into equivalence classes by correspondence to the same projective order type. In every class, either each or no order type is realizable. We know from matroid theory that P10 = 312 114 projective classes have to be realizable. Now, for each member of , we try to recover a realizing point set. A counter is kept for the number of realizable projective classes all of whose members have been realized already. The process is terminated when this number reaches P10.

Recovering realizing point sets is done by a combination of heuristics, in­ cluding insertion stategies and simulated annealing. To our fortune, one or the other heuristic eventually succeeded in realizing all candidates which are indeed realizable. To enhance the user­friendliness of the obtained data base, each point set was post­processed to fit into a small and nice grid representation. Even this issue is by no means trivial, as a doubly­exponential lower bound on the required grid size is known; see [28].

Table 1 lists the numbers of Euclidean order types according to the size h of the convex hull of the realizing n­point sets.

It took 36 hours on a 500 MHz Pentium III to generate all Euclidean pseudo order types of size n = 10, and to find realizing point sets for all but some 200 000 of them, by using the insertion strategy.

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Table 1: Number of Euclidean order types classified by extreme points

However, most of the projective classes corresponding to the pseudo order types left unrealized got at least one member realized, and could be completed quickly by a rotation technique. In particular, only 251 projective classes remained without any realized member. For these classes, we had to invoke a simulated annealing routine, as we had no information on which are the 242 classes known to be non­realizable from literature. We were successful for 9 classes within 60 hours whichfinally completed this task.

Much additional effort has been required to obtain compact grid representations for the realizing point sets, as well as for checking reliability of the data base. In summary, a complete, user­friendly, and reliable data base for all order types of sizes n 10 has been obtained. The data base is made public on the web2. Due to space limitations, the grid point sets of size 10 are not accessible on­line but rather have been stored on a CD which is available upon request.

2.2 Some applications

Let us now briefly point out some situations were the complete enumeration of all order types for n 10 leads to results for general problem size n.

The obvious case is when a counterexample can be provided that generalizes to larger n. There might exist counterexamples too large to be found by hand though small enough to be detected by checking all order types. On the other hand, the non­existence of small counterexamples gives some evidence for the truth of a conjecture.

As another example, case analyses for problem instances of constant size are often encountered when proving some combinatorial property. This is particularly true for induction proofs if a sufficiently large induction base is sought. The point is that the quality of the initial values affects the asymptotic behavior of the result.

2at http://www.igi.TUGraz.at/oaich/triangulations/ordertypes.html

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It would lead to far to give concise definitions of all the problems having been examined by means of the data base so far; we refer to [9] instead. Complete enumerations have been done for frequently arising concepts like triangulations, crossing­free Hamiltonian cycles, crossing­free spanning trees, crossing­free matchings, k­sets, and others. Extremal values have been calculated for the crossing number (of the complete geometric graph), the cover number and the partition number (by convex polygons), the size of crossing families (in the complete geometric graph), the reflexivity number (for Hamiltonian cycles), and more. In various cases, new results and answers to open problems and conjectures have been obtained.

In conclusion, we believe that knowing 'which sets of 10 points do exist' will be of use to many researchers in computational and combinatorial geometry who wish to examine their conjectures on small point configurations.

3 Finding the Best Triangular Network

Generating quality triangular meshes is one of the fundamental problems in computational geometry and has been studied extensively, from both the theoretical and practical point of view; see e.g. the survey paper by Bern and Eppstein [14]. Main fields of application include finite element methods and computer aided design. In formulating a triangulation problem, a choice arises between two types of triangulations: ones that have exactly the input points as their vertices, and others where additional points may be placed to increase quality. While the latter type probably has received more attention in practice, the former type { triangulating a fixed set of points 'optimally' { has attracted the interest of many theoreticians. In fact, finding optimal triangulations is a hard problem, apart from a few exceptions.

3.1 Optimal triangulations

Let us put the triangulation problem more formally. Let S be a set of n points in the plane, and let E(S) be the set of all (straight­line) edges spanned by the points in S. A triangulation of S is a maximal set of non­crossing edges from E(S). Such a set of edges partitions the convex hull of S into triangles. The number of different triangulations of S is an exponential function of n; see [8]. This fact already indicates that constructing optimal triangulations in polynomial time might be a challenging task. This becomes more apparent as common greedy methods, like deleting candidate edges or triangles from worst to best, are doomed to fail by the NP­completeness of the following problem; see Lloyd [32]: given some subset of E(S), decide whether this set contains a triangulation of S.

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Results on optimizing combinatorial properties of triangulations, such as maximum vertex degree or connectivity are rare. Most optimization criteria where efficient algorithms are known concern the geometric properties of the edges and triangles. The interested reader may consult the recent survey article by Aurenhammer and Xu [12] on optimal triangulations.

The most commonly constructed, and maybe the most famous triangulation for a point set S is the Delaunay triangulation, DT(S). See e.g. [24, 11] for extensive treatments. DT(S) contains ­ for each triple of points in S ­ the corresponding triangle, provided its circumcircle is empty of points in S. Various global optimality properties of DT (S) can be proved by observing that certain edge flips (exchanges of diagonals) yield a local improvement of the respective optimality measure. For example, equiangularity of a triangulation, which is the sorted list of its angles, increases lexicographically in this way. DT(S) thus maximizes the minimum angle. This is one of the main reasons why the Delaunay triangulation is the structure of choice in various practical applications: small angles are a potential source of numerical errors in many computations. Another reason for the popularity of DT (S) is its low computational complexity; several simple O(n log n) construction algorithms exist. DT(S) also minimizes, among other quality criteria, the largest circumcircle that arises for the triangles, and it maximizes the sum of triangle inradii. On the negative side, DT(S) fails to fulfill optimization criteria similar to those mentioned above, such as minimizing the maximum angle, or minimizing the longest edge.

3.2 Minimum­weight triangulation

Most longstanding open is another optimal triangulation problem: what is the 'shortest possible' triangulation of a point set S ? More formally, for the minimum weight triangulation the optimization criterion is weight, which is defined as the sum of all edge lengths. The complexity of computing a minimum weight triangulation, MWT (S), for arbitrary planar point sets S is still open since 1975 when it was mentioned in Shamos and Hoey [34]. Minimum weight triangulation is included in Garey and Johnson's [25] list of problems neither known to be NP­complete, nor known to be solvable in polynomial time. Attempts to prove the problem NP­hard have resulted in some related NP­completeness results. Several heuristic algorithms have been proposed to solve this problem. However, only recently progress has been made to produce a constant approximation in weight. (For more details on these and the following properties of minimum weight triangulations see, e.g., [12].)

Among others, dynamic programming approaches and linear programming techniques have been tried. The former works in O(n3) time if the underlying point set S is the set of vertices of a simple polygon. This fact gave motivation

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Figure 3: Minimum­weight (light) triangulation for 150 points

for the following subgraph approach to compute MWT(S). First, find a (suitable) subgraph G of MWT(S). If G contains k connected components, try all possibilities to add k ­ 1 edges to make it a connected graph C. Complete each of these graphs C to a triangulation by optimally triangulating its faces, and select a triangulation with minimum weight, which gives MWT(S). This approach, which basicly is exhaustive search, can be implemented to run in O(n k+2) time. The problem, of course, is to find candidate subgraphs G with k small, preferably constant.

Many efforts have been put into the investigation of subgraphs of MWT (S). Still, only in recent years have several non­trivial subgraphs of MWT(S) been identified. One of them arises from a class of empty neighborhood graphs called ­skeletons. An edge between points p, q S belongs to the ­skeleton of S if the two circles of diameter |pq| and passing through both p and q are empty of points in S. This skeleton happens to be subgraph of MWT(S) for large enough, as has been observed first in Keil [29]. Unfortunately though, the resulting graph may be highly disconnected.

A distinct attempt to find a sufficient local condition defines an edge e E(S) as a light edge if there is no edge in E(S) which crosses e and is shorter than e. Let L(S) denote the graph formed by all the light edges for S. The interesting property is the following: if L(S) happens to be a full triangulation of S, then L(S) = MWT(S). This allowed, for the first time, for a fast computation of

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MWT(S) for a non­trivial class of point sets of moderate size; see Figure 3.

This result is a consequence of the following matching theorem for planar triangulations, proved independently in Aichholzer et al. [6] and in Cheng and Xu [18]: for any two triangulations T1 and T2 of a fixed point set S, there is a perfect matching between the edge set of T1 and the edge set of T2 such that matched edges either cross or are identical.

3.3 The LMT-skeleton

So far, we have seen that several subgraphs of MWT(S) can be found from some local conditions. Still, we are far away from an algorithm for computing MWT (S) that works efficiently for general point sets S. The breakthrough (at least from the practical point of view) came from considering subgraphs which are defined in a global way, in the following surprisingly simple manner.

Call a triangulation T of S locally minimal if every point­empty and convex quadrilateral drawn by T is optimally triangulated (that is, contains the shorter of its two diagonals). Let LMT(S) denote the intersection of all locally minimal triangulations for S. Then LMT(S) is a subgraph of MWT(S), as this triangulation of course is locally minimal, too.

Whereas it is not known how to compute LMT(S) in polynomial time, a surprisingly large subgraph of LMT(S), the so­called LMT­skeleton, can be identified by the simple method below, recently proposed in Belleville et al. [13] and in Dickerson and Montague [22]. Consider some edge set E E(S). An edge e E is called redundant in E if there is no convex quadrilateral formed by E that has e as its shorter diagonal. Edge e is called unavoidable in E if no other edge in E crosses e. The LMT­skeleton algorithm puts E = E(S) and proceeds in several rounds. Each round first identifies all edges redundant in E and eliminates them from the set, and then includes into the LMT­skeleton all edges that are unavoidable in the reduced set E. The algorithm stops when no more edges in E can be classified as either redundant or unavoidable. The number of rounds (but not the produced LMT­skeleton) depends on the ordering in which the edges are examined.

The fact that the LMT­skeleton for a point set S, and thus LMT(S), tend to be connected even for large point sets comes as a surprise. From the practical point of view, the LMT­skeleton almost always nearly triangulates S; cf. Figure 4. On the other hand, a 19­point counterexample to connectedness exists [13]. Moreover, even for uniformly distributed points, the expected number of components is (n); see [16]. (The constant of proportionality is extremely small, though.) It is interesting to note that the LMT­skeleton, and the graph of light edges L(S), exhibit a similar behavior of connectedness, but do not contain each other in general. We mention further that the improved LMT­algorithm in [4],

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Figure 4: LMT­skeleton for 100 points

that tends to yield some additional edges of LMT(S), indeed exactly constructs LMT(S) provided the connectedness of this structure.

The LMT­skeleton clearly can be constructed in polynomial time, and several variants have been considered in order to gain efficiency. A powerful tool is pre­exclusion of edges before starting the LMT­algorithm, using an exclusion region; see Das and Joseph [19]: for an edge e, consider the two triangular regions with base e and base angles . If both regions contain points in S then e cannot be part of MWT(S). If S is drawn from a uniform distribution, reduction to an expected linear number of candidate edges for MWT(S) is achieved, and near­linear expected­time implementations of the LMT­algorithm exist. In fact, the LMT­skeleton approach enables the computation of a minimum weight triangulation for some 10 000 points within half an hour.

Let us conclude with stating two open problems. The obvious one, of course, is to theoretically resolve the complexity status of finding a minimum weight triangulation. The second one could be intuitively stated as follows: can we always find the same triangulation in two different point sets? More precisely, can any two n­point sets (that agree on the number of extreme points) be triangulated so as to give isomorphic triangulations? No recent answers are available, except for severe restrictions on either the shape of the point sets or on the number of non­extreme points; see [5].

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4 Subdividing a polygon in a natural way

Partitioning a complex geometric object into smaller and easier to deal with parts is a first step in various algorithms in computational geometry. As many planar geometric objects can be described sufficiently accuratly by (straight­line) polygons, partitioning algorithms for polygonal objects have received particular attention.

Among the obvious (and for several situations sufficient) ways to subdivide a (non­self­intersecting) polygon P is the partitioning into slabs or into triangles. For example, P may be divided into parallel slabs by cutting with vertical lines through its vertices. Or P may be triangulated, by introducing diagonals between its vertices. In fact, triangulating an n­vertex polygon in O(n) time has been a tantalizing open question which has not been settled till 1990; see Chazelle [17].

Obviously, a polygon P allows for many different slab partitions or triangulations. Also, these structures will not reflect much of the original shape of P, and thus cannot be called 'natural' partitions of P in this sense. In numerous applications, like pattern recognition, robotics, and GIS, a so/shy;called skeleton partition of P is sought. Informally speaking, a subdivision into regions is meant which reflects the geometric shape of P in an appropriate manner.

4.1 Medial axis and Voronoi diagram

The wellshy;known and widely used example of a polygon skeleton is the medial axis of P, proposed by Preparata [33], Kirkpatrick [30], and Lee [31]. This skeleton consists of all points inside the polygon which have more than one closest point on the boundary of P. It is a tree­like structure, composed of straight­line arcs and parabolically curved arcs, which partition P into regions. Each region is the locus of all points closest to a particular edge or vertex of P. The number of arcs remains linear in the number n of vertices of P. The medial axis reflects well the geometry of a polygon. The availability of relatively simple O(n log n) construction algorithms3 makes it a suitable candidate for a skeleton description. However, it typically contains curved arcs in the neighborhood of the polygon vertices. In comparison to other polygon partitions, which are solely composed of straight line segments, this yields disadvantages in the computer representation and construction, and possibly also in the application, of this type of skeleton.

Before introducing an alternative skeleton structure which avoids this short­coming, let us briefly discuss the medial axis in the context of Voronoi diagrams. Speaking sloppily, a Voronoi diagram is a partition of a space U induced by a set S of objects that live in that space. The scope of variations of Voronoi diagrams that have been investigated within and outside computational geometry is vast;

3An O(n) construction algorithm exists but lacks a simple implementation.

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Figure 5: Angular bisector skeletons

see e.g. the survey papers by Aurenhammer and Klein [11, 10]. Still, they all fit into either framework of definition below.

In the distance model, a distance function d is defined that maps each element of S x U to a real number. The Voronoi region of an object s S is the set of all elements U whose unique closest object with respect to d is s. The wavefront model, on the other hand, prescribes for each object s S a set of wavefronts that emanate from s and eventually cover the whole space U. Wavefront propagation stops wherever two wavefronts collide. The Voronoi region of an object s is the portion of U covered by the wavefronts for s. In the classical case of a Voronoi diagram, U is the Euclidean plane, S is a finite set of points, and d is the Euclidean distance function. The wavefronts for each point s S are circles centered at s. For the medial axis of a polygon P, U is the interior of P, d is the same as above, and S is the set of vertices and edges of P. The distance model and the wavefront model are not equivalent, however. The skeleton structure we are going to describe will have no interpretation in the distance model.

4.2 Straight skeleton

In fact, the basic idea for obtaining a straight­line skeleton is neither complex nor new: use angular bisectors rather than 'distance' bisectors for the polygon edges. However, extending angular bisectors until they meet and continuing this way in an uncontrolled manner may result in diffeerent and actually unintended structures; see Figure 5. Thereby, the number of skeleton arcs may grow beyond linear, and even self­intersections (that is, no proper partitions) may arise. In fact, and unlike the case of Voronoi diagrams, it is unclear how to come up with a non­procedural (and unique) definition of an angular bisector skeleton. This fact might have kept off computational geometers from further considering this concept.

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Figure 6: (a) Polygon hierarchy and (b) straight skeleton

A recent, and surprisingly simple, answer has been given in Aichholzer et al. [3, 2]. The straight skeleton, S(P), of a polygon P, is defined (via the wavefront model) as follows. Shrink P, by continuously insetting each of its vertices, so that at any particular time, every shrunken polygon edge is parallel to the original, and the distance from the original is the same for all shrunken edges. This makes each polygon vertex move along the angular bisector of its incident edges, as long as the polygon boundary does not change topologically. There are two possible types of changes:

(1) Edge event: An edge shrinks to zero, making its neighboring edges adjacent now.

(2) Split event: An edge is split, i.e., a re ex vertex runs into this edge, thus splitting the whole polygon. New adjacencies occur between the split edge and each of the two edges incident to the reflex vertex.

After either type of event, we are left with a new, or two new, polygons which are shrunk recursively if they have non­zero area. The shrinking process gives a hierarchy of nested polygons; see Figure 6(a). The straight skeleton, S(P), is defined as the union of the pieces of angular bisectors traced out by polygon vertices during this shrinking process. S(P) is a unique structure defining a polygonal partition of P. Each edge e of P sweeps out a certain area which corresponds to its region in S(P). See Figure 6(b).

Compared to the medial axis of P, the straight skeleton S(P) is also superior in the following respect. If P is non­convex, then S(P) is of smaller combinatorial size. To be precise, if P is an n­gon with r reflex vertices then S(P) realizes 2n - 3 arcs whereas the medial axis of P realizes 2n + r 3 arcs, r of which are

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parabolically curved. (For convex polygons, the two skeletons are identical.) As a particularly nice property, S(P) partitions P into polygons that are monotone in direction of their defining edge.

A drawback of S(P) is that it cannot be constructed using the well­developed machinery for computing Voronoi diagrams. The best known algorithm runs in roughly time; see Eppstein and Erickson [23]. From the practical point of view, the triangulation­based algorithm in [2] simulating the wavefront movement is preferable in view of its almost linear observed behavior.

4.3 Applications

To demonstrate that S(P), beside its use as a skeleton for P, is indeed a natural and useful subdivision, we briefly describe some seemingly unrelated applications.

We first show that S(P) allows for a 3D interpretation in a natural way. To this end, for a point in the interior of P, let T () denote the unique time when is reached by the first wavefront edge. (The region of S(P) containing belongs to the edge of P which sends out this wavefront edge.) Considered as a function on the domain P, T () is continuous and piecewise linear, that is, its graph is a polygonal surface in three­space. The facets of project vertically to the regions of S(P). Let us mention two applications where the construction of a surface from a given polygon P comes in.

For example, P may be interpreted as an outline of a building's groundwalls. The task is to construct a polygonal roof that rises over P and whose roof facets are all of the same slope. For general shapes of P, the construction of a 'roof', defined as a polygonal surface with given facet slopes and given intersection with the ground walls, is by no means trivial. In fact, roofs are highly ambigous objects; cf. Figure 5. The surface obtained from S(P) constitutes a canonical and general solution. Moreover, realizes exactly 2n - 3 arcs, the minimum for all possible roofs of an n-gon P. Note that the medial axis of P is not at all suited as a roof, as it would give rise to cylindrical roof facets.

In this context, two generalizations of S(P) are appropriate. First, the straight skeleton may as well be defined for general planar straight­line graphs G, not just for polygons. A 3D surface can be defined similarly as above. In addition, the concept of straight skeleton is exible enough to be adapted to yield surfaces (and in particular, roofs) with individual facet slopes. This is achieved by tuning the propagation speed of the individual wavefront edges. Of course, this changes the geometric and topological structure of the skeleton.

An interesting GIS application, which makes use of the general shape of the underlying graph G, is the reconstruction of geographical terrains. Assume we are given a map where rivers, lakes, and coasts are delineated by polygonal lines, yielding a planar straight line graph G. We are requested to reconstruct

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Figure 7: Terrain reconstructed from a river map

a corresponding polygonal terrain from G, possibly with additional information concerning the elevation of lakes and rivers, and concerning the slopes of the terrain according to different mineralogical types of material. The surfaces resulting from S(G) and its modifications seem to meet these general geographical requirements in an appropriate manner. Figure 7 gives an example.

A related question is the study of rain water fall and its impact on the oodings caused by rivers in a given geographical area. The amount of water drained o by a river is usually estimated by means of the Voronoi diagram of the river map. This models the assumption that each raindrop runs o to the river closest to it, which might be unrealistic in certain situations. The straight skeleton offers a more realistic model by bringing the slopes of the terrain into play. In particular, the surface that arises from S(G) has the following nice property: every raindrop that hits a surface facet f runs o to the edge of G defining f.

Finally, an application of straight skeletons to origami design deserves mention. A classical open question in origami mathematics is whether any simple polygon P is the silhouette of (i.e., can be covered by) a at origami. A recent and affirmative answer has been given in Demaine et al. [20]. One of their approaches (the 'ring method') uses the subdivision of P induced by a hierarchy of polygons that arise during the shrinking process that yields S(P); cf. Figure 6(a). It can be shown that each such polygonal ring can be covered, and rings can be bridged appropriately, by a sequence of paper folding operations. That is, the concept of straight skeletons allows for a relatively simple proof of this classical origami conjecture.

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