Most programmers young and old have seen the cyberpunk sci-fi film The Matrix1. One of the most outstanding parts of the movie is the closing scene where Neo sees the Matrix when battling the Agents:

Neo Sees the Matrix

The visual effect with the code running along all the surfaces is iconic. Seems other people thought so too to the point that the effect has a name: Matrix Digital Rain2.

Wouldn’t it be neat to create a terminal screensaver that mimicked the effect seen in the movie?

How to Make It Rain

Studying a few video compilations helps with understanding the details behind the scrolling effect:

Here are some features that pop out in the video:

  • The characters printed on the screen are a mix of Japanese kana and Latin letters/numeral characters.
  • Each column or stream has a fixed length with the first character in the stream having a bright white color.
  • Character streams spawn at random.
  • Once a stream of characters has begun, a new stream won’t begin on that column until all the previous characters have “fallen” off screen.

Fundamentally, a stream of characters scrolls down the screen. You can imagine the screen is a two dimensional matrix of characters. Each screensaver frame tick will scroll the screen down a single row such that the characters at the bottom row “fall off” the screen. The higher the framerate, the faster the characters fly down the screen.

Building a Scrolling Buffer

A handful of data structures implement the scrolling buffer effect. The first is the Char type:

struct Char {
    char c = '\0';
    bool first = false;

Char represents a single on-screen character. The only oddity here is the boolean first. You will see the purpose of the first field later.

The CharStream type represents the individual columns or streams of characters.

class CharStream {
    CharStream() = delete;

    CharStream(int capacity, int char_limit);
    ~CharStream() = default;
    CharStream(const CharStream&) = default;
    CharStream& operator=(const CharStream&) = default;
    CharStream(CharStream&&) = default;
    CharStream& operator=(CharStream&&) = default;
    void InsertChar(const Char& c);
    void RemoveChar();
    bool Empty() const { return (size_ <= 0); }
    int Size() const { return size_; }
    int Capacity() const { return static_cast<int>(chars_.capacity()); }
    int CharLimit() const { return char_limit_; }
    const Char& operator[](int i) const { return chars_[i]; }

    int size_;
    int char_limit_;
    bool limit_reached_;
    std::vector<Char> chars_;

CharStream is a fixed sized container type storing a limited number of non NULL Char objects. CharStream supports two primary operations: insert and remove.

InsertChar() inserts a Char at the beginning of the stream. The caller can only add up to char_limit_ characters to the stream. RemoveChar() removes the last Char in the stream by shifting all elements right a cell.

Below is a sequence of calls to a CharStream object demonstrating scrolling using the InsertChar() and RemoveChar() methods of the class:

CharStream stream(5, 3) -> [NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL]

stream.InsertChar('a')  -> [ 'a', NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL]
stream.RemoveChar()     -> [NULL,  'a', NULL, NULL, NULL]
stream.InsertChar('b')  -> [ 'b',  'a', NULL, NULL, NULL]
stream.RemoveChar()     -> [NULL,  'b',  'a', NULL, NULL]
stream.InsertChar('c')  -> [ 'c',  'b',  'a', NULL, NULL]

/* this insert is ignored because we have already reached the char limit of 3 */
stream.InsertChar('d') -> [ 'c',  'b',  'a', NULL, NULL]

stream.RemoveChar() -> [NULL,  'c', 'b',   'a', NULL]
stream.RemoveChar() -> [NULL, NULL, 'c',   'b',  'a']
stream.RemoveChar() -> [NULL, NULL, NULL,  'c',  'b']
stream.RemoveChar() -> [NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL,  'c']
stream.RemoveChar() -> [NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL, NULL]

Finally, ScreenBuffer implements the vertically scrolling buffer:

class ScreenBuffer {
    ScreenBuffer(int width, int height);
    ScreenBuffer() = delete;
    ~ScreenBuffer() = default;
    ScreenBuffer(const ScreenBuffer&) = default;
    ScreenBuffer& operator=(const ScreenBuffer&) = default;
    ScreenBuffer(ScreenBuffer&&) = default;
    ScreenBuffer& operator=(ScreenBuffer&&) = default;

    void Update();
    CharBuffer GetBuffer() const;

    std::size_t GetRandomNumInRange(int lower_bound, int upper_bound) const;
    char GetRandomBinDigit() const;
    void InsertChar(std::size_t stream_idx);
    void ScrollScreen();

    int width_;
    int height_;
    std::vector<CharStream> streams_;

At its core, ScreenBuffer is an array of CharStream objects where each CharStream represents a single screen column. The ScreenBuffer constructor ensures there are width many streams each with capacity and char limit of height. ScreenBuffer’s API updates the internal screen buffer and retrieves a read-only view of the buffer’s contents.

Update() is the heavy lifter which performs the following operations:

  1. Shifts all rows down by one. This deletes the bottom row and introduces a new, empty top row.
  2. If a column of characters hasn’t yet met its character limit, Update() will insert a character at the top of that column.
  3. Update() will select a random column index and will insert a character only if that column is empty.

With the data structures in place, all that’s left to do is render the ScreenBuffer’s contents using the ncurses API.

Rendering the Screensaver

The goal is to create a terminal screensaver. This limits your graphical library options. Good old ncurses3 will do.

For this project, binary digits are the only characters printed to the screen. No Japanese or Latin characters as in the original. This choice removed a lot of headaches while still keeping with the cyber theme of the original.

The ScreenSaver class renders the ScreenBuffer contents in a single ncurses window:

class ScreenSaver {
    ScreenSaver(const ScreenSaver&) = default;
    ScreenSaver& operator=(const ScreenSaver&) = default;
    ScreenSaver(ScreenSaver&&) = default;
    ScreenSaver& operator=(ScreenSaver&&) = default;

    void Draw();
    bool Quit() const { return (getch() != ERR); }

    enum Color {
        kWhite = 1,
        kGreen = 2,

    ScreenBuffer buffer_;

The ScreenSaver API is simple: Draw() and Quit().

Quit() returns true if the User has pressed any key. It’s the mechanism by which the user can terminate the screensaver.

Draw() renders the ScreenBuffer’s contents in the window. Binary digits render in green with their dimness altered at random. The first character in each stream is the exception. If a Char’s first field is true, then that character is white and rendered in bold giving a visual cue as to where each stream starts.

The main screensaver loop ends up being simple:

int main() {
    const int kDefaultRefreshRateUsec = 75000;

    neo::ScreenSaver screensaver;
    while (!screensaver.Quit()) {
    return 0;

The main loop continuously draws the screensaver with a delay between updates. If the user presses any key, the application exits.

Here’s what the screensaver looks like in action:

Binary Rain


Making the neo screensaver had its challenges. In particular, this was one of those classic problems where if you have the right data structures its simple. Well sort of, implementing a tweaked scrolling buffer does take some thought. The setup presented here certainly cuts many corners with respect to efficiency. All that said, the screensaver has been fun to use at home and a great conversation piece amongst the Matrix nerds at work.

The complete project source with build instructions, usage, etc. is available on GitHub under neo.

  1. Say what you want about the sequels, but The Matrix is a classic and a must watch for anyone interested in the cyberpunk subgenre. ↩︎

  2. Matrix Digital Rain ↩︎

  3. ncurses ↩︎