Wednesday, June 19, 2019

libinput and the Dell Canvas Totem

We're on the road to he^libinput 1.14 and last week I merged the Dell Canvas Totem support. "Wait, what?" I hear you ask, and "What is that?". Good question - but do pay attention to random press releases more. The Totem ( is a round knob that can be placed on the Dell Canvas. Which itself is a pen and touch device, not unlike the Wacom Cintiq range if you're familiar with those (if not, there's always lmgtfy).

The totem's intended use is as secondary device - you place it on the screen while you're using the pen and up pops a radial menu. You can rotate the totem to select items, click it to select something and bang, you're smiling like a stock photo model eating lettuce. The radial menu is just an example UI, there are plenty others. I remember reading papers about bimanual interaction with similar interfaces that dated back to the 80s, so there's a plethora to choose from. I'm sure someone at Dell has written Totem-Pong and if they have not, I really question their job priorities. The technical side is quite simple, the totem triggers a set of touches in a specific configuration, when the firmware detects that arrangement it knows this isn't a finger but the totem.

Pen and touch we already handle well, but the totem required kernel changes and a few new interfaces in libinput. And that was the easy part, the actual UI bits will be nasty.

The kernel changes went into 4.19 and as usual you can throw noises of gratitude at Benjamin Tissoires. The new kernel API basically boils down to the ABS_MT_TOOL_TYPE axis sending MT_TOOL_DIAL whenever the totem is detected. That axis is (like others of the ABS_MT range) an odd one out. It doesn't work as an axis but rather an enum that specifies the tool within the current slot. We already had finger, pen and palm, adding another enum value means, well, now we have a "dial". And that's largely it in terms of API - handle the MT_TOOL_DIAL and you're good to go.

libinput's API is only slightly more complicated. The tablet interface has a new tool type called the LIBINPUT_TABLET_TOOL_TYPE_TOTEM and a new pair of axes for the tool, the size of the touch ellipse. With that you can get the position of the totem and the size (so you know how big the radial menu needs to be). And that's basically it in regards to the API. The actual implementation was a bit more involved, especially because we needed to implement location-based touch arbitration first.

I haven't started on the Wayland protocol additions yet but I suspect they'll look the same as the libinput API (the Wayland tablet protocol is itself virtually identical to the libinput API). The really big changes will of course be in the toolkits and the applications themselves. The totem is not a device that slots into existing UI paradigms, it requires dedicated support. Whether this will be available in your favourite application is likely going to be up to you. Anyway, christmas in July [1] is coming up so now you know what to put on your wishlist.

[1] yes, that's a thing. Apparently christmas with summery temperature, nice weather, sandy beaches is so unbearable that you have to re-create it in the misery of winter. Explains everything you need to know about humans, really.

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