Friday, March 6, 2015

libinput scroll sources

This feature got merged for libinput 0.8 but I noticed I hadn't blogged about it. So belatedly, here is a short description of scroll sources in libinput.

Scrolling is a fairly simple concept. You move the mouse wheel and the content moves down. Beyond that the details get quite nitty, possibly even gritty. On touchpads, scrolling is emulated through a custom finger movement (e.g. two-finger scrolling). A mouse wheel moves in discrete steps of (usually) 15 degrees, a touchpad's finger movement is continuous (within the device physical resolution). Another scroll method is implemented for the pointing stick: holding the middle button down while moving the stick will generate scroll events. Like touchpad scroll events, these events are continuous. I'll ignore natural scrolling in this post because it just inverts the scroll direction. Kinetic scrolling ("fling scrolling") is a comparatively recent feature: when you lift the finger, the final finger speed determines how long the software will keep emulating scroll events. In synaptics, this is done in the driver and causes all sorts of issues - the driver may keep sending scroll events even while you start typing.

In libinput, there is no kinetic scrolling at all, what we have instead are scroll sources. Currently three sources are defined, wheel, finger and continuous. Wheel is obvious, it provides the physical value in degrees (see this post) and in discrete steps. The "finger" source is more interesting, it is the hint provided by libinput that the scroll event is caused by a finger movement on the device. This means that a) there are no discrete steps and b) libinput guarantees a terminating scroll event when the finger is lifted off the device. This enables the caller to implement kinetic scrolling: simply wait for the terminating event and then calculate the most recent speed. More importantly, because the kinetic scrolling implementation is pushed to the caller (who will push it to the client when the Wayland protocol for this is ready), kinetic scrolling can be implemented on a per-widget basis.

Finally, the third source is "continuous". The only big difference to "finger" is that we can't guarantee that the terminating event is sent, simply because we don't know if it will happen. It depends on the implementation. For the caller this means: if you see a terminating scroll event you can use it as kinetic scroll information, otherwise just treat it normally.

For both the finger and the continuous sources the scroll distance provided by libinput is equivalent to "pixels", i.e. the value that the relative motion of the device would otherwise send. This means the caller can interpret this depending on current context too. Long-term, this should make scrolling a much more precise and pleasant experience than the old X approach of "You've scrolled down by one click".

The API documentation for all this is here:, search for anything with "pointer_axis" in it.

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