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ImageJ 1.x was never meant as anything else than a desktop application with one user in front of one screen attached to one computer.

However, it acquired macro capabilities, a batch mode for such macros, and even scripting support.

Naturally, users want to execute such macros or scripts in environments such as clusters where there is no graphical user interface available.

The problem

Java does support a headless mode via the java.awt.headless property; setting this property to true enables it.

Unfortunately, with X11-based Java (such as on Linux, which is the most prevalent platform for running clusters), headless mode does not allow to instantiate any GUI components that would want to display text. The reason is that the font-metrics on X11 are provided by the X11 server (and are indeed different between servers) and therefore the dimensions of such elements simply cannot be calculated without a graphical desktop.

Since ImageJ 1.x was devised as a desktop application, everything -- including macros -- works through the GUI. For example, a simple run("Open..."); will look for the action in the menu.

On MacOSX, there is no problem: Aqua provides GUI-independent text rendering (mapping to the actual display using anti-aliasing). There, running in headless mode allows instantiating GUI elements such as the menu bar.

Possible solutions

The --headless mode

Historical note

Headless support was originally a branch in ImageJA; it worked by putting rewritten versions of three core ImageJ classes into a file called headless.jar, which was put into the class path before ij.jar so they would override ImageJ's versions. Nowadays, we use Javassist for run-time patching, through the ImageJ 1.x patcher project. You do not need to do anything special to take advantage of this feature, except pass the --headless flag when launching ImageJ from the command line.

ImageJ2 provides the capability to execute ImageJ plugins, macros and scripts in headless mode. This feature uses bytecode manipulation to patch ImageJ 1.x's behavior at runtime, making it possible to start ImageJ in batch mode without instantiating GUI components.

Shortcoming: There are plugins which are even more bound to a GUI than ImageJ 1.x is. Naturally, these plugins will still try to instantiate GUI elements when being called in headless mode, failing.

Running scripts in headless mode

Please see the headless scripting guide.

Running macros in headless mode

To run a macro in headless mode, use the -macro command line argument along with the --headless option, as follows:

 ImageJ --headless -macro path-to-Macro.ijm

If the macro resides in ImageJ's macro directory, it is possible to specify the macro name instead of the actual file path. The file extension is always very recommended but for backwards compatibility, it is not strictly required only when specifying the macro name instead of a path.

You can even pass parameters to the macro; e.g.:

 ./ImageJ-win64.exe --headless --console -macro ./RunBatch.ijm 'folder=../folder1 output=../samples/Output'

In that case, the RunBatch.ijm file should be something like:

arg = getArgument()
print("Running batch analysis with arguments:")
run("Batch process", arg )
eval("script", "System.exit(0);");

the getArgument() is used to grab the parameter string itself, and it is then passed to an IJ command.


Another method is to have a virtual desktop, e.g. Xvfb. This will allow ImageJ to start with a virtualised graphical desktop.

Advantage: No run-time patching is required.

Shortcomings: It is slower than it needs to be because of the overhead of starting the GUI, it is harder to configure, and plugins might get stuck because they wait for user input which never comes.


Here are a couple of simple examples.

Passing direct arguments:

$ cat hello.js
IJ.log("hello " + arguments[0]);
$ xvfb-run -a $IMAGEJ_DIR/ImageJ-linux64 hello.js Emerson
hello Emerson

With SciJava script parameters:

$ cat hello-with-params.js
// @String name
IJ.log("hello " + name);
$ xvfb-run -a $IMAGEJ_DIR/ImageJ-linux64 --ij2 --headless --run hello-with-params.js 'name="Emerson"'
hello Emerson

A more complex shell script that wraps a macro for use with Xvfb (thanks to Nestor Milyaev):

export DISPLAY=:1
Xvfb $DISPLAY -auth /dev/null &
# the '(' starts a new sub shell. In this sub shell we start the worker processes:

script=$scriptDir"lsmrotate2nrrd.ijm \"dir="$1"&angle-x=$2&angle-y=
$3&angle-z=$4&reverse=$5\" -batch"
$imagejBin -macro $script # running the actual ijm script

wait # waits until all 'program' processes are finished
# this wait sees only the 'program' processes, not the Xvfb process

See also this post on the ImageJ mailing list.

Rewriting as scripts or plugins

The most robust method is to rewrite macros as scripts that do not require interaction with the GUI to begin with. Unfortunately, this is the most involved solution, too, since it usually takes some time to convert macros.