Visual Studio native debug visualization (natvis) for C++/WinRT

The C++/WinRT Visual Studio Extension (VSIX) gives you Visual Studio native debug visualization (natvis) of C++/WinRT projected types. This provides you an experience similar to C# debugging.


For more info about the C++/WinRT Visual Studio Extension (VSIX), see Visual Studio support for C++/WinRT, and the VSIX.

Enabling natvis

Natvis is automatically on for a debug build because WINRT_NATVIS is defined when the _DEBUG symbol is defined.

Here's how to opt into it for a release build.

  • Compile your code with the symbol WINRT_NATVIS defined. Doing so exports a WINRT_abi_val function, which provides the entry point for the debug visualizer to evaluate property values in the target process.
  • Generate a full PDB. This is because the debug visualizer uses the Visual Studio C++ Expression Evaluator, which in turn requires symbolic definitions for displayed property types.
  • A visualized type must report a runtime class or an interface defined in discoverable metadata. It does this via its implementation of IInspectable::GetRuntimeClassName.

Given the above, the debug visualizer works best with Windows system types for which metadata can be found in the C:\Windows\System32\WinMetadata folder. However, it can also support user-defined types and remote debugging, provided that you properly locate .winmd files.

Using custom metadata

The debug visualizer looks for user-defined metadata (.winmd files) alongside the process .exe. It uses an algorithm similar to that of RoGetMetaDataFile, probing for successive substrings of the fully-qualified typename. For example, if the type being visualized is Contoso.Controls.Widget, then the visualizer looks, in sequence, for:

  • Contoso.Controls.Widget.winmd
  • Contoso.Controls.winmd
  • Contoso.winmd

Remote debugging with custom metadata

When remote debugging, the process .exe isn't local, so the search for custom metadata (mentioned in the previous section) fails. In that case, the visualizer falls back to a local cache folder (%TEMP%) for a suitable .winmd file. If it finds one, then it records the size and date of the file, and then searches the remote debugging target for the same .winmd alongside the binary. If necessary, the remote file is downloaded, updating the local cache. This strategy ensures that the locally cached .winmd is always up to date, as well as providing a means for manually caching a .winmd if it can't be found remotely (for example, if F5 deployment didn't put it there).

For an example of the caching behavior, see the Troubleshooting section below.


The debug visualizer uses the Visual Studio C++ Expression Evaluator to invoke the exported WINRT_abi_val function to obtain property values. Normally, the visualizer can catch unhandled exceptions, and degrade gracefully, displaying "<Object uninitialized or information unavailable>" in Visual Studio Watch windows.

That's useful when the visualizer tries to evaluate a local variable outside of its lifetime scope (for example, before construction). In some contexts, such as unit tests, an unhandled exception filter is installed. This can cause the process to terminate when the C++ expression evaluator faults. To prevent faulting, the visualizer makes several VirtualQuery calls in WINRT_abi_val.


If a property isn't being displayed correctly, then turn on verbose natvis diagnostics in Visual Studio (Tools > Options > Debugging > Output Window > Natvis diagnostic messages), and then observe the Output window for natvis errors.

The following excerpt shows several attempts to probe for a .winmd file, followed by a download from the remote target to the local cache folder, and then a load of that .winmd file.

Natvis C++/WinRT: Looking for C:\Users\...\AppData\Local\DevelopmentFiles\ffcddd4f-cfc0-44cb-b736-0b2d026def77VS.Debug_x64....\Consoso.Controls.Widget.winmd
Natvis C++/WinRT: Looking for C:\Users\...\AppData\Local\DevelopmentFiles\ffcddd4f-cfc0-44cb-b736-0b2d026def77VS.Debug_x64....\Consoso.Controls.winmd
Natvis C++/WinRT: Downloading C:\Users\...\AppData\Local\DevelopmentFiles\ffcddd4f-cfc0-44cb-b736-0b2d026def77VS.Debug_x64....\Consoso.Controls.winmd
Natvis C++/WinRT: Loaded C:\Users\...\AppData\Local\Temp\Consoso.Controls.winmd

If the visualizer fails to find a .winmd file, then this error is generated:

Natvis C++/WinRT: Could not find metadata for Consoso.Controls.Widget

There are a number of other error scenarios that all produce diagnostics.

If metadata is available, then the output diagnostics will show many calls like this:

Natvis C++/WinRT: WINRT_abi_val(*(::IUnknown**)0x32dd4ffc18, L"{96369F54-8EB6-48F0-ABCE-C1B211E627C3}", 0).s,sh
Natvis C++/WinRT: WINRT_abi_val(*(::IUnknown**)0x32dd4ffc18, L"{AF86E2E0-B12D-4C6A-9C5A-D7AA65101E90}", -2).s,sh

The first is a call to IStringable.ToString to obtain the string representation of a complex type (the unexpanded display value).

The second is a call to IInspectable::GetRuntimeClassName, in order to reflect on the type's properties.

Subsequent WINRT_abi_val calls are property evaluations for each interface discovered on the type.

Invoking WINRT_abi_val

You can use the Visual Studio Immediate/Command windows to directly invoke WINRT_abi_val for troubleshooting.

For example, given a projected variable stringable, you can evaluate its IStringable.ToString as:

>? WINRT_abi_val((::IUnknown*)&stringable, L"{96369F54-8EB6-48F0-ABCE-C1B211E627C3}", 0).s,sh