Users and applications
Formal description
Use in data structures
Architectural roots
Making pointers safer
Simulation using an array index
Project partners & contact details
Computer GRaphics Access for Blind people through a haptic virtual environment
GRAB user with fingers in GRAB 'thimbles'
The GRAB project has allowed the development of a new Haptic & Audio Virtual Environment to allow blind and visually impaired persons to have access to the three-dimensional graphic computer world through the senses of touch and hearing.
For more information on the hardware and software technology underrpinning GRAB, click on Technology.
For information on the potential and current applications of GRAB for users, click on Users and applications.
For presentations, papers and other publications, click on Links.

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Taking GRAB to the next stage
The GRAB project members welcomes ideas and offers to develop GRAB further. The team especially welcomes opportunities to commercialise the haptic interface, geometric modeler and applications developed as part of the project.
Please contact the relevant project partner: click here for details >>>.

In computer science, a pointer is a programming language object that stores the memory address of another value located in computer memory. A pointer references a location in memory, and obtaining the value stored at that location is known as dereferencing the pointer. As an analogy, a page number in a book's index could be considered a pointer to the corresponding page; dereferencing such a pointer would be done by flipping to the page with the given page number and reading the text found on that page. The actual format and content of a pointer variable is dependent on the underlying computer architecture.
Using pointers significantly improves performance for repetitive operations like traversing iterable data structures, e.g. strings, lookup tables, control tables and tree structures. In particular, it is often much cheaper in time and space to copy and dereference pointers than it is to copy and access the data to which the pointers point.
Pointers are also used to hold the addresses of entry points for called subroutines in procedural programming and for run-time linking to dynamic link libraries (DLLs). In object-oriented programming, pointers to functions are used for binding methods, often using what are called virtual method tables.
A pointer is a simple, more concrete implementation of the more abstract reference data type. Several languages, especially low-level languages support some type of pointer, although some have more restrictions on their use than others. While "pointer" has been used to refer to references in general, it more properly applies to data structures whose interface explicitly allows the pointer to be manipulated (arithmetically via pointer arithmetic) as a memory address, as opposed to a magic cookie or capability which does not allow such. Because pointers allow both protected and unprotected access to memory addresses, there are risks associated with using them, particularly in the latter case. Primitive pointers are often stored in a format similar to an integer; however, attempting to dereference or "look up" such a pointer whose value is not a valid memory address will cause a program to crash. To alleviate this potential problem, as a matter of type safety, pointers are considered a separate type parameterized by the type of data they point to, even if the underlying representation is an integer. Other measures may also be taken (such as validation & bounds checking), to verify that the pointer variable contains a value that is both a valid memory address and within the numerical range that the processor is capable of addressing.
Harold Lawson is credited with the 1964 invention of the pointer. In 2000, Lawson was presented the Computer Pioneer Award by the IEEE or inventing the pointer variable and introducing this concept into PL/I, thus providing for the first time, the capability to flexibly treat linked lists in a general-purpose high level language”. His seminal paper on the concepts appeared in the June, 1967 issue of CACM entitled: PL/I List Processing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pointer first appeared in print as a stack pointer in a technical memorandum by the System Development Corporation.
Control tables that are used to control program flow usually make extensive use of pointers. The pointers, usually embedded in a table entry, may, for instance, be used to hold the entry points to subroutines to be executed, based on certain conditions defined in the same table entry. The pointers can however be simply indexes to other separate, but associated, tables comprising an array of the actual addresses or the addresses themselves (depending upon the programming language constructs available). They can also be used to point to earlier table entries (as in loop processing) or forward to skip some table entries (as in a switch or "early" exit from a loop). For this latter purpose, the "pointer" may simply be the table entry number itself and can be transformed into an actual address by simple arithmetic.
A null pointer has a value reserved for indicating that the pointer does not refer to a valid object. Null pointers are routinely used to represent conditions such as the end of a list of unknown length or the failure to perform some action; this use of null pointers can be compared to nullable types and to the Nothing value in an option type.
A dangling pointer is a pointer that does not point to a valid object and consequently may make a program crash or behave oddly. In the Pascal or C programming languages, pointers that are not specifically initialized may point to unpredictable addresses in memory.
Where a pointer is used as the address of the entry point to a program or start of a function which doesn't return anything and is also either uninitialized or corrupted, if a call or jump is nevertheless made to this address, a "wild branch" is said to have occurred. The consequences are usually unpredictable and the error may present itself in several different ways depending upon whether or not the pointer is a "valid" address and whether or not there is (coincidentally) a valid instruction (opcode) at that address. The detection of a wild branch can present one of the most difficult and frustrating debugging exercises since much of the evidence may already have been destroyed beforehand or by execution of one or more inappropriate instructions at the branch location. If available, an instruction set simulator can usually not only detect a wild branch before it takes effect, but also provide a complete or partial trace of its history.
Ada is a strongly typed language where all pointers are typed and only safe type conversions are permitted. All pointers are by default initialized to null, and any attempt to access data through a null pointer causes an exception to be raised. Pointers in Ada are called access types. Ada 83 did not permit arithmetic on access types (although many compiler vendors provided for it as a non-standard feature), but Ada 95 supports “safe” arithmetic on access types via the package System.Storage_Elements.
Newer dialects of BASIC, such as FreeBASIC or BlitzMax, have exhaustive pointer implementations, however. In FreeBASIC, arithmetic on ANY pointers (equivalent to C's void*) are treated as though the ANY pointer was a byte width. ANY pointers cannot be dereferenced, as in C. Also, casting between ANY and any other type's pointers will not generate any warnings.