Embedded and wearable systems require new ideas for input controller hardware. But older software still expects a keyboard and mouse. How do we bridge the gap without having to write kernel drivers?

A few months ago, I built a Linux computer small enough to fit on my wrist, that ran a full X desktop environment. The issue wasn’t just fitting the computer in, but also figuring out how to control it. Touchscreens become problematic when the screen is only barely bigger than your finger.

Of course, a mouse and keyboard are totally out of the question. Alas, all the good software still expects them. So it’s important to be able to fake those standard controller inputs using whatever crazy hardware you do build. That’s what we're going to do in this article: learn how to create “virtual” input devices for an operating system (once the electronics are working).


The Gyromouse at work in its Linux smart watch


Controlling a Wearable Device

Wearable devices desperately need new ideas for ways of controlling them. The good news is that Linux makes it easy. There’s no need to write special mouse drivers or kernel modules, and you can use whatever language you want (though C is still best).

To make my wrist-mounted machine, I tried several input systems, including:

  1. A magnetometer (or digital compass) module and a “3D stylus” (a magnet) to move the mouse pointer and simulate clicks. 
  2. An accelerometer mode where tilting the module in any direction caused the mouse pointer to “roll” in that direction, like a ball on a table. This was prohibitively hard to control.
  3. A mode where velocity (integrated acceleration) in X and Y directions moves the mouse pointer like a normal mouse would. The issue here was that you can't use it while moving.
  4. A mode where “tapping” the module caused mouse clicks. This wasn't a great idea for fine control.
  5. A gyroscope mode where rotating the module directly translates to mouse movement.

It was the last method, the gyroscope, that was the nicest to use, along with a physical button for clicking. It turns out that humans can perceive and control much smaller angular “twisting” movements compared to lateral, “swaying” accelerations. This is why knobs exist.

Many people have asked why I didn't do it the “obvious” velocity way, exactly copying how a desktop mouse works. It’s important to note the gyro method wasn’t my first choice or my original intention. Sure, I had some strong ideas, but if I’d stuck to them I would have built a poor interface.

Experiment. Iterate. See it in context. Let reality have a say in the matter.

The gyroscope-based system gave the best mix of fast movement and fine control, and that’s what I was looking for, so I wrote “gyromouse” and used it as the basis for the manipulator.


Hooking Up the IMU and Magnetometer

It’s trivially easy these days to wire up an I2C sensor to an embedded Linux machine like the Raspberry Pi. Ground, VCC, SDA, and SCL. Two power wires, two data wires—and that’s it. Job done.

Once physically connected, the Pi’s I2C support is excellent. You need to enable it through raspi-config, at least for Wheezy and Jessie. (I have hopes that in a future Raspbian, the I2C, SPI, and I2S buses might be enabled by default.) The bundled command line tool i2cdetect can enumerate the devices on the bus, so you can verify the hardware is mostly working without writing a line of code.

From there, it’s straightforward to use your language of choice to talk to the chip with its preferred protocol. Most I2C and SPI sensor chips have a couple of configuration registers that you write to turn them on and put them in the correct mode, and a couple of registers you read continuously to get the sensor values back out.

I’ve used the command line tools, Python, C, C++, and even Javascript to read a sensor. Most sensors have update rates in the 10-1000Hz range that are broadly compatible with the millisecond-accurate timing loops in Linux.

We’re going to skip over the specifics of talking to the chip and assume you’ve got a program of some kind that can read your sensor and, for example, write a stream of numbers to stdout representing the samples.

Here’s the code I mashed together for the MPU6050 Inertial Measurement Unit used in Gyromouse:


  Gyromouse IMU Code  

And here’s a similar wodge for dealing with the HMC5883 magnetometer:


  Gyromouse Magnetometer Code  

Now comes the important part: using that raw data to “fake” a typical input device like a mouse, touchpad, or keyboard. We want to write a second program that takes the stream of sensor samples, processes it, and feeds back into the operating system like a device driver would.

And this is where Linux shines because it has user-space input devices. “User-space” means you don’t have to write a kernel device driver, and this is a great, great thing. You really want to avoid writing kernel modules. It will take over your life. Ask Linus Torvalds.

Instead, we use /dev/uinput which is a stream that connects to an existing kernel module. By writing command messages to this special file, your code can ask the API to register a “virtual” device on your behalf and assign it capabilities.


The original prototype of the Gyromouse, pictured here next to the device it pretends to be.


This works because UNIX really doesn’t care how many keyboards or mice you have plugged in. It never has. Whichever mouse is moved pushes the pointer, and whatever buttons are pressed are accepted as keys.

There are three basic “classes” of uinput device we’ll talk about (though there are many more) and a single program can use any subset:

  • Key events
  • Relative events
  • Absolute events


Key Events

This includes both keyboard and mouse buttons. At this level, mouse button events don’t have coordinates attached. In fact, they can’t because that would imply the lowly input device knew what the X-windows pointer was up to. So mouse buttons are basically treated like tiny keyboards within the uinput system.

Key events come in two halves, the “down” and “up” parts, and you should send them in neat pairs. (I’ve bent that rule more than once so it’s not enforced. It's just confusing to X.) You could soft-wire that straight to a GPIO pin connected to a switch, so long as you debounce it a little.

During setup, you have to tell the API which key codes you plan to send. If you’re implementing a full keyboard, this gets tedious—but it’s a necessary evil so that Linux or X can profile the device and potentially change behaviour if keys are different (e.g., Meta/Windows/Mac keys, multilingual keyboards, third mouse buttons).

I don’t think it’s possible to dynamically add or remove keys from a virtual device after setup, but you can always destroy and re-create the virtual device with new definitions.


Controls like rotary knobs and capacitive touch sensors can be “keyboards”.


Relative Events

Mouse movement is the classic example of a relative event. The mouse doesn’t know where it is—it just knows it rolled left. Each axis gets its own event message, so REL_X events can be sent at a different rate than REL_Y events, and then you send EV_SYN messages after each “set” of updates. (Essentially, this is a “commit” once you’ve done all X and Y and wheel updates for a common time period.)

Axis coordinates are sent as deltas in the device’s own coordinate system with as many DPI as you want (within sane limits). (DPI, by the way, is an abuse of Dots Per Inch which is shorthand for coordinate increments per distance traveled. Not printed dots.) X-windows has a “mouse speed/acceleration” preference panel which adjusts how X turns those event values into arrow pointer movement (which isn’t our concern here).

The weakness in that system is if you’ve got devices with wildly different DPI-equivalents, there is no optimum “mouse speed” which will work for all. This is why high-resolution mice have that little switch on the bottom to make them ordinary again. Rather than define your own scale, you want to send event values that sort-of correspond to the deltas that a mouse would generate. You want it to be easy to drive the pointer across an average screen (say, 1000 “dots”).


Inertial Measurement Units like the MPU6050 detect physical motion and allow for sleek and efficient mechanical integration into wearables and other small-form-factor devices.


Absolute Events

These are devices that have a finite, limited range of inputs, such as touchscreens or volume knobs. During initialization, you are expected to send definitions about the range of each axis, so you can say your touchscreen is [0...1023]×[0...1023] if you have 10-bit ADCs that give a full range of sample values. It’s someone else’s problem to turn that into screen coordinates at the current resolution. You deal purely in your sample values.

That doesn’t mean you should directly copy raw sensor values to event values. That results in a very jittery pointer as all the noise gets shown clearly to the user. Some form of sample filtering is usually needed (if not already done by the sensor), so the output range you pick is going to be related more to your filter math than to the I2C device’s specifications.

Just remember that X-windows can’t simply create absolute resolution, so if you’re expecting to drive a pointer on a 4K screen with individual-pixel accuracy using a standard 8-bit resistive touch-screen ... well, that’s not going to work. Menus are fine if you’re skipping 7 out of 8 pixels, but not Photoshop.

As far as I know, there’s no explicit prohibition of sending both relative and absolute events from a single source. However, there are not many circumstances where it makes sense. Even if your sensor inputs are coming from something like a GPS/inertial sensor combination (which has perhaps 10Hz of “absolute” updates vs. 1000Hz of “relative” from the IMU), you’d be fusing those inputs in your code and presenting a single stream to /dev/uinput. Otherwise, you have no idea how X’s mouse acceleration is tweaking the scaling between the two modes.


I considered building a "GPS Touchscreen" that used the whole Earth as an input surface, but Pokemon Go beat me to it.


You will usually be mixing either relative or absolute events with key events. A standard mouse is the classic case of relative + key events.


The Code

The following example is written in pure C, but the same concepts can be applied in any language. If you’re using Python or Javascript, there are libraries which neatly wrap up this functionality—but this is what they’re all doing underneath.

I’ve learned that C is a very efficient language for doing low-level I2C and uinput work, and the lack of dependency on any interpreted language or libraries means my mouse/keyboard isn’t going to stop working because my Python/Javascript upgrade broke.


  Example C Code  


There is no specific library to install—you just open /dev/uinput as if it were a normal unix file, and use ioctl() and write() functions to get/send commands and data to the API. The message block format and codes are defined in the standard Linux includes that should already be on your system.


                    #include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <errno.h>
#include <linux/input.h>
#include <linux/uinput.h>

int fd; // file handle

void initialize_uinput() {
// open the uinput fifo
	fd = open("/dev/uinput", O_WRONLY | O_NONBLOCK);
	if(fd < 0) {
		printf("could not open /dev/uinput\n");
		return 1;
	// enable the message types we're going to send
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_EVBIT, EV_KEY) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_KEYBIT, BTN_LEFT) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_KEYBIT, BTN_RIGHT) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_KEYBIT, BTN_MIDDLE) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_EVBIT, EV_REL) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_RELBIT, REL_X) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_SET_RELBIT, REL_Y) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	// create our virtual input device
	struct uinput_user_dev uidev;
	memset(&uidev, 0, sizeof(uidev));
	snprintf(uidev.name, UINPUT_MAX_NAME_SIZE, "gyromouse");
	uidev.id.bustype = BUS_VIRTUAL; 
	uidev.id.vendor  = 0x1;
	uidev.id.product = 0x2;
	uidev.id.version = 1;
	if(write(fd, &uidev, sizeof(uidev)) < 0) die("error: write");
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_DEV_CREATE) < 0) die("error: ioctl");

During initialization, we also provide metadata such as a device name (“gyromouse” in this example, but you should change it to your own). However, if we were trying to emulate a very specific device (say, for legacy software which needs something specific), we could impersonate that device by using its bus/vendor/product IDs instead of generic defaults.


Button Presses

Once setup is done, we can write message blocks to the file that fire off UI events.


                    void send_button(int btn_code, int value) {
	struct input_event     btn_ev;
	// button event
	memset(&btn_ev, 0, sizeof(struct input_event));
	btn_ev.type = EV_KEY;
	btn_ev.code = btn_code;
	btn_ev.value = value;
	if(write(fd, &btn_ev, sizeof(struct input_event)) < 0) die("error: write");
	// syn event

void send_syn() {
	struct input_event     syn_ev;
	// syn event
	memset(&syn_ev, 0, sizeof(struct input_event));
	syn_ev.type = EV_SYN;
	syn_ev.code = 0;
	syn_ev.value = 0;
	if(write(fd, &syn_ev, sizeof(struct input_event)) < 0) die("error: write");

The button/key code is the same we told uinput about during initialization. The value is 1 for “down” or 0 for “up” (or 2 for hardware autorepeat). To simulate a full press-release, you must send both events:


                    send_button(BTN_LEFT, 1); // send left mouse button down
send_button(BTN_LEFT, 0); // send left mouse button up


Pointer Movement

This time, we send a pair of events for X and Y deltas (even if the delta is zero, which we could theoretically skip). Then we send a sync.


                    void send_mouse(int dx, int dy) {
	struct input_event     ev;
	// mouse X movement
	memset(&ev, 0, sizeof(struct input_event));
	ev.type = EV_REL;
	ev.code = REL_X;
	ev.value = dx;
	if(write(fd, &ev, sizeof(struct input_event)) < 0) die("error: write");
	// mouse Y movement
	memset(&ev, 0, sizeof(struct input_event));
	ev.type = EV_REL;
	ev.code = REL_Y;
	ev.value = dy;
	if(write(fd, &ev, sizeof(struct input_event)) < 0) die("error: write");
	// syn event


Shutting Down

As our program is closing, we should send a final message to the API to destroy our device—in a logic-type way. (If your hardware device ends up physically destroyed, that’s another issue entirely.)


                    void shutdown() {
	// destroy our mouse device
	if(ioctl(fd, UI_DEV_DESTROY) < 0) die("error: ioctl");
	// close the file


In addition to executing this function when the program closes, you should try to trap SIGTERM events so that this function can be called when a user presses (Ctrl+C) or they run a “kill -9” command. But if you don’t, it’s not the end of the system—the input device hangs around (probably until the machine reboots) but doesn’t really interfere.

If you’re running the program repeatedly without cleanly destroying the device, then you might get problems due to old references piling up in the kernel. So don’t do that. But having dozens of hanging devices during development didn’t give me any grief, so don’t feel like you have to reboot after every segfault.


Other Events and Capabilities

This article merely scratches the surface of the uinput system. There are also EV_SW “stateful switch” events, meant for laptop lid open/closed detection. There are EV_LED events to query/control blinky lights such as caps lock, EV_SND for beeps, EV_FF to control force-feedback rumble packs (yes, really), modifiers to enable multi-touch and multi-tool detection (if you have a tagged stylus with an eraser on the other end), and even tool-distance (hovering) support for quasi-3D interfaces. So there is tremendous scope for creating standard UNIX input devices with abilities far more complex than those of a 2D mouse.

A good overview of the full range of device types is laid out here.


Unusual input devices that could be used as novel interfaces: humidity, ultrasonic, heart-rate, and light sensors.


Making It Permanent

Splitting the task into two programs and using a connecting stream is the “UNIX way.” It allows us to do tricks later like tee the sensor data stream to extra programs (since only one program can access the hardware) or even separate programs across a network.

Since they’re normal UNIX programs (not special device drivers), we have to make sure that they run at boot time. I did it the quick and dirty way with an init.d script that starts the two programs together, but advanced UNIX gurus will be able to daemonize the programs in proper FIFO ways.


Go Forth and Build

So now you know it’s not that hard to fake button presses. Any program can do it, so long as it has access to the /dev/uinput file.

Most languages have a wrapper library named some variant of uinput that makes the process even easier. If you’ve already got the skills to write the code to talk to your sensor, it won’t be hard. The tricky part is the “glue” in the middle, which translates the raw data into user actions. It’s tricky because there’s no right answer.

For example, the code provided for Gyromouse has different scaling for the X and Y axes because it’s easier to twist your wrist than tilt your entire arm. It just felt nicer when the Y speed was toned down. Of course, that applies only to devices on your wrist. It’s pretty specific to the task at hand (badum-tsh!).

So that’s your job now: connecting the hardware and software with new ideas. Making it feel right. The tools are there for you!



1 Comment

  • cuyler1 2016-10-13

    Voice Recognition would make it a true Dick Tracy watch.In 1998 and pre-Win 98 I found a trial program offered by Phillips named “Phillips Free Speech”. As part of construction management I walked the project taking notes of progress/safety/daily report information. I used a walkie-talkie to talk to my desks’ desktop and send the report while I was still out in the field. This allowed me to delegate more effective world class communications with all parties involved. My hard disk drive died about 2 years after this and “Free Speech” had vanished.
    VR programs somehow never took off yet they would be the answer to this “watch”. I have never figured out what one needs a relative humidity sensor for as I live in florida and it is 100% or higher.
      But have the cover of the watch initiate power as it is opened and have a microphone and hey even a camera on the underside of this cover. The “talking typing program(an there were others) ” and around 20 years old. Seems as kids keep going backwards,I.e.-cell phones to talk on and back to Morse code(texting), the older crowd was tired of “coding” and windows so evolved and now the younger group is back to coding with linux based programs it seems the younger ones would pick up on VR(voice recognition) and really push the world to a new level of communication!
      Wouldn’t it be great to jump on a plane headed for Europe and as staring at the clouds out the cabins’ window send a corparate report to California! And all by a “watch”!