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The Dispstr API is a Matlab API for extensible, polymorphic custom object display. This means it’s an API you can code against to support generic display of user-defined objects and their data. It also supports using those custom displays when the objects are contained inside a complex type such as a struct or table.


Let’s say you’ve got a class with a custom disp method.

classdef Birthday1
        Month double
        Day double
        function this = Birthday1(month, day)
            this.Month = month;
            this.Day = day;

        function disp(this)
          fprintf('%s\n', datestr(datenum(1, this.Month, this.Day), 'mmm dd'));

This works great for displaying at the command window.

>> b = Birthday1(10, 14)
b = 
Oct 14

But what if you stick it inside a struct or a cell?

>> c = { 42 b }
c =
  1×2 cell array
    {[42]}    {1×1 Birthday1}
>> s.bday = b
s = 
  struct with fields:

    bday: [1×1 Birthday1]

Or if you want to use it with fprintf or sprintf?

>> fprintf('My bday is %s\n', b)
My bday is Error using fprintf
Unable to convert 'Birthday1' value to 'char' or 'string'. 


Dispstr supplies an API that lets you overcome this. Have your class inherit from dispstrlib.Displayable, and override the dispstr_scalar method.

classdef Birthday < dispstrlib.Displayable
        Month double
        Day double
        function this = Birthday(month, day)
            this.Month = month;
            this.Day = day;
    methods (Access = protected)
        function out = dispstr_scalar(this)
            out = datestr(datenum(1, this.Month, this.Day), 'mmm dd');

Now it works! (As long as you call dispd to display cells, structs, or tables.)

>> b = Birthday(10, 14)
b = 
Oct 14
>> dispd({ 42 b })
{42}   {Oct 14}
>> s.bday = b;
>> dispd(s)
    bday: 'Oct 14'
>> fprintf('My bday is %s\n', b)
My bday is Oct 14

And if you’re brave, pull in the Mcode-monkeypatch/ dir to your Matlab path, and it’ll override Matlab’s disp to do this automatically.

>> addpath Mcode-monkeypatch
>> { 42 b }
c =
{42}   {Oct 14}

A techier explanation

Matlab lacks a conventional method for polymorphic data display that works across (almost) all types, like Java’s toString() does. This makes it hard to write generic code that can take arbitrary inputs and include a string representation of them in debugging data. It also means that custom classes don’t display well when they’re inside a struct or table.

Dispstr provides an API that includes a conventional set of functions/methods for doing polymorphic display, and a display method that respects them and supports Matlab’s own composite types like struct, table, and cell.

This fixes Matlab output that looks like this:

>> disp(tbl)
    Name       UserID          Birthday
    _______    ____________    ______________
    'Alice'    [1x1 UserID]    [1x1 Birthday]
    'Bob'      [1x1 UserID]    [1x1 Birthday]
    'Carol'    [1x1 UserID]    [1x1 Birthday]

to look more useful, like this:

>> dispd(tbl)
    Name    UserID        Birthday
    _____   ___________   ________
    Alice   HR\alice      May 24  
    Bob     Sales\bob     Dec 14  
    Carol   Sales\carol   Apr 20  

There’s not a whole lot of code in this library. I think the major value in it is in establishing the function convention and signatures, not in the implementation code itself.


There are three main levels or styles of representation in the Dispstr API:

dispstr and dispstrs

dispstr and dispstrs are polymorphic functions that can display a concise, human-readable summary of any input data. Their implementation in the API is as global functions that have support for Matlab’s built-in data types, and generic display formats for user-defined objects. User-defined classes can define dispstr and dispstrs methods to override them and provide customized displays.

dispstr produces a single string that describes an entire array.

dispstrs produces a string for each element in an array, that describes that particular element’s value or contents.

These values are suitable for use in user interfaces, presentation to end users, casual display at the command prompt, and the like.

reprstr and reprstrs

reprstr and reprstrs are like dispstr and dispstrs, but display a lower-level, more developer-oriented representation of values. These are suitable for use in debugging contexts, like object dumps, log files, debugging and code inspection tools, and so on.


mat2str2 is an extension of Matlab’s mat2str that works on additional types and sizes of arrays. It adds support for n-dimensional arrays, cell arrays, and struct arrays, and respects classes that provide mat2str overrides.

sprintfd, fprintfd, errord, and warningd

sprintfd and fprintfd are variants of sprintf and fprintf that respect dispstr() methods defined on their arguments, so you can pass objects to ‘%s’ conversion specifiers and get nice output.

Similarly, errord and warningd are variants of Matlab’s error and warning that support dispstr functionality, so you can pass objects to their %s conversion specifiers, too.

prettyprint and pp

prettyprint is a function that produces a verbose, multi-line, formatted output describing an object’s contents. The main implementation can handle Matlab built-in types, structs, and tables, respecting the custom dispstr implementations of objects inside those structs and tables.

Classes can implement their own prettyprint methods to customize their own display. This is typically only needed for classes that implement complex, hierarchical structures like tabular objects, trees, and whatnot.

pp is a command wrapper around prettyprint for interactive use. It does the same thing as prettyprint, except that it also accepts variable names as char for its input.


dispstrlib.Displayable is a mixin class that makes it easier for you to write classes that use dispstr and dispstrs. All you have to do is inherit from it or dispstrlib.DisplayableHandle and override dispstr_scalar.


Get the Dispstr library on your path, and then define dispstr() and dispstrs() methods on your classes. Have their disp() methods use dispstr(). Or, for convenience, have them inherit from dispstrlib.Displayable and just define dispstrs() on them.

Use dispd to display tables. Use fprintfd and sprintfd instead of fprintf and sprintf for string output.

If you’re brave, and your code is an application instead of a library, or you’re using Matlab interactively, add Mcode-monkeypatch to your path too, to override Matlab’s own disp, fprintf, and sprintf to support dispstr. (It’s a risky move, but having that work is really nice, so consider doing it. And go ahead and turn off warning off MATLAB:dispatcher:nameConflict.)

See the documentation on the web or in docs/ in the distribution for details.


BSD 2-Clause License. Share and enjoy.


dispstr was written by Andrew Janke.

The project home page is the GitHub repo page. Bug reports and feature requests are welcome. Documentation can be found at the website.

dispstr is part of the Janklab suite of libraries for Matlab.

More documentation