Sprites are a newish concept in the cartography world. I haven’t written about them here before as they didn’t really have a lot of relevance until Mapbox started using them in Mapbox GL JS. It turns out that sprites are a handy way to provide map icons to a vector tile project.
To be brief, a spritesheet is comprised of sprites, which are really just map icons. A vector tile map style displays map icons via a reference to a spritesheet. Spritesheets mush the sprites up into a very small amount of space to keep the file size small.
Here is an example of one portion of what actually is an unusually large spritesheet that will be used for icon-heavy nautical charts:
You may also see the term “spriteset,” which is referring to the two files that Mapbox GL JS spec uses to place these things on a map: the png file and the json file. The json file is really just a list of all these sprites by name and location in the png file. Something like this:
So you see the json file shows the location and size of each sprite and references them by name. As I’ve learned the hard way, the name is actually very important. You use the name in the json style to tell the map what to render. So for example:
Here you can see that the we are symbolizing data where type=tower with a sprite that is named “power-tower-12” in the spritesheet json. However, it would have been much nicer if it had been called “tower” in the spritesheet json. Why? Because here’s another bit of that same stylesheet, where you see how it works much better:
Here it will just go find whatever sprite in the spritesheet has a name that matches what’s in the type field (plus has the -18 on the end, which isn’t that important to know about for now but just is a way of referencing the size of the icon in case you maybe have two different icon sizes). The first way you would have to hard-code each and every icon name with whatever you are filtering for, the second way you simply name each icon/sprite the same thing as what it is referenced as in the data.
Alright, that’s it for this whirlwind intro to sprites. There’s a lot glossed-over here but serves to get us all acquainted I think.
P.S. I’ve been using TexturePacker to throw pngs and svgs into a spritesheet with a custom exporter I built for the Mapbox GL JS spec. There’s also spritezero to checkout for free.
P.P.S. Here’s a little view of TexturePacker and what looks like it should be my next corporate logo, the little green duckling.