Building the User Interface

In the previous stage we have built a sensor application that is able to query the Tock kernel for the current temperature and expose this value as an IPC service. We also provide a minimal controller application which uses this service and prints the temperature value onto the console.

However, this is not a great user interface. In this stage of the tutorial, we will extend this application to display information on an OLED screen attached to the board. For this we use the Tock kernel's screen driver support, in addition to the u8g2 graphics library.

CHECKPOINT: 02_sensor_final + 03_controller_screen

We assume that the sensor application is already loaded onto the board, and that the provided control application is able to print the temperature retrieved via IPC.

Adding the u8g2 Library

Tock is able to run arbitrary code in its userspace applications, including existing C libraries. For this stage in particular, we are interested in displaying information on a screen. Without a library to render text or symbols, this can be quite cumbersome. Instead, we will use the u8g2 library with libtock-c bindings.

To add this library to our application we add the following two lines to our application's Makefile, before the include:

STACK_SIZE  = 4096

We increase the size of the stack that is pre-allocated for the application, as libtock-c by default allocates a stack of 2 kB which is insufficient for u8g2. We then specify that our application depends on the u8g2 library, by adding the libtock-c/u8g2 directory to EXTERN_LIBS. This directory contains a wrapper that allows the u8g2 library to communicate with Tock's screen driver system calls and ensures that the library can be used from within our application.

Once this is done, we can add some initialization code to our controller application:

#include <u8g2.h>
#include <u8g2-tock.h>

// Global reference to the u8g2 context:
u8g2_t u8g2;

int main(void) {
  // Required initialization code:
  u8g2_SetFont(&u8g2, u8g2_font_profont12_tr);

  // Clear the screen:


When we now build and install this app, it should still display the temperature readouts on the serial console. However, it should also clear the screen and you may see repeatedly flicker when installing applications or resetting your board.

EXERCISE: Extend the above app to print a simple message on the screen. You can use the u8g2_SetDrawColor(&u8g2, 1); method to draw in either the 0 or 1 color (i.e., foreground or background). u8g2_DrawStr(&u8g2, $XCOORD, $YCOORD, $YOUR_STRING); can be used to print a string to the display. Make sure you update the display contents with a final call to u8g2_SendBuffer(&u8g2);.

Displaying the Current Temperature

As a first step to building our HVAC control user interface, we want the screen to display the current temperature. For this, we consult the the sensor application, which exposes this data via IPC.

The controller should regularly sample data from the sensor application. A naive way to implement this is shown in the pseudo-code example below:

void ipc_callback(int temperature) {
  // Print temperature onto screen.

int main(void) {
  for (;;) {
    // Issue IPC request...

	// Wait for 250ms between requests:

This architecture has a few issues though. For instance, during the call to delay_ms, the application is effectively prevented from doing other useful work. While delay_ms does not spin and allows the kernel, other applications or even callbacks into the same application to work, it does block the application's main loop.

Another issue with this design is that the ipc_callback function performs complex application code which may, in turn, wait on some asynchronous events (callbacks) by inserting a yield point. This means that during the execution of the ipc_callback, other callbacks -- including ipc_callback itself -- may be scheduled again. Consider the following example:

void ipc_callback() {
  // The call to yield allows other callbacks to be scheduled,
  // including `ipc_callback` itself!

void main() {

  // This call allows the initial `ipc_callback` to be scheduled:

While Tock applications are single-threaded and this type of reentrancy is less dangerous than, e.g., UNIX signal handlers, it can still cause issues. For instance, when a function called from within a callback performs a yield internally, it can unexpectedly be run within the execution of the function. This can in turn break the function's semantics. Thus, it is good practice to restrict callback handler code to only non-blocking operations.

As such, we instead architect our controller and sensor application interactions using two callbacks and an asynchronous timer. It will work as follows:

  1. The main function will request the sensor app to provide a temperature reading, and thus issue an IPC callback.
  2. The IPC client callback will save the temperature value, and request a timer callback in 250 ms.
  3. The timer callback will request an IPC service call from the sensor app, going back to step 2.

As such, this loop does not execute any blocking / yielding operations in any callback. It also moves all timing / scheduling logic out of the applications main loop, which can instead look like this:

int main(void) {
  // Send initial IPC request

  // Yield in a loop, allowing callbacks to be run:
  for (;;) {

The final piece of the puzzle is to run blocking code in response to these callbacks, but outside of the callback handlers themselves. For this, Tock provides the yield_for function: it yields the application, until a certain condition is met. For instance, the controller application sets the callback_event boolean variable to true every time a callback is run. When we want to wait on this event in our main function, we can use the following logic:

// Shared variable to signal whether a callback has fired:
bool callback_event = false;

void ipc_callback() {
  // Indicate that a callback has fired:
  callback_event = true;

int main(void) {
  // Send initial IPC request

  // Yield in a loop, allowing callbacks to be run:
  for (;;) {
    // Wait for callback_event to be true:
	// Reset callback_event to false for the next iteration:
	callback_event = false;

	// This code is executed whenever one or more callbacks have
	// fired. It can be long running and yield and will not be
	// re-entered:
	// ...

EXERCISE: The 03_controller_screen checkpoint already contains the logic outlined above. Extend the main function to, in response to a callback, write the current temperature on a screen. You can do this by extending the update_screen function. You might find it useful to split this code out into a different function.

Finally, we will wire up this application to the OpenThread network to send the current temperature setpoint to all other control units, and retrieve an average value back. We provide some useful scaffolding for this in the next checkpoint, so it is advisable to either switch to that, or copy the commented out function signatures for OpenThread communication and integration at this point:

CHECKPOINT: 04_controller_thread

We continue here.