Talking Bluetooth (Low Energy) with Xamarin

With the rising popularity of IoT (Internet of Things), it becomes more common that you need to communicate with hardware. In most cases you can accomplish this with network connectivity, but you might want to consider Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) as well. As the name suggests, BLE uses a lot less energy in comparison to classic Bluetooth. Less energy consumption means that it’s possible to use smaller (and portable) batteries what might be very useful for IoT devices. When deciding if BLE suites your needs, you should take a few things in consideration:

  • Bandwidth: Bluetooth is less suitable for transmitting large sets of data, especially BLE.
  • Costs: in comparison to network adapters, bluetooth is more affordable.
  • Range: the range of your device really depends on the bluetooth device and version that is used by the hardware and the smartphone/tablet. The environment might also impact the range. At a maximum you can reach 100 meters, but the average will be around 15 meters.
  • Power consumption: you can use BLE to save energy, but this will limit the throughput. If you are transferring small packages this might be interesting. The classic way of bluetooth communication is also less consuming than network connectivity.

Instead of writing the bluetooth code for every platform, you can choose to use a plugin that provides an abstraction layer so it’s possible to access BLE from shared code. At the time of writing, I find Bluetooth LE Plugin for Xamarin the best pick for the job. The plug-in is easy to implement and is continuously getting updates. If you want to use classic bluetooth you might want to look into some other plugins. in this post I will focus on Bluetooth LE Plugin for Xamarin.

When working with BLE, there are 3 (most important) different bluetooth abstraction layers:

  • Services: A service contains one or more characteristics. For example, you could have a service called “Heart Rate service” that includes characteristics such as “heart rate measurement.” Each service has it’s unique pre-defined 16-bit or 128-bit UUID.
  • Characteristics: A characteristic is some kind of endpoint for a specific part of the service. Just like a service, the characteristic also has a UUID. Characteristics support a range of different interactions: read, write, notify, indicate, signedWrite, writableAuxilliaries, broadcast.
  • DescriptorsDescriptors are defined attributes that describe a characteristic value. For example, a descriptor might specify a human-readable description, an acceptable range for a characteristic’s value, or a unit of measure that is specific to a characteristic’s value.

Now, let’s dive into some code samples! To give you a taste of what the plugin has in store for you, some snippets:

Scan for BLE devices (advertisements)
The Adapter class makes it possible to detect devices in the surrounding area. You can simply get an instance of the adapter and start scanning with the following code:

 var adapter = CrossBluetoothLE.Current.Adapter;
adapter.DeviceDiscovered += (s,a) =+ deviceList.Add(a.Device);
await adapter.StartScanningForDevicesAsync(); 

Connect to device
When you’ve found the device you want to connect to, you are able to initiate a connection with the device. After connecting successfully to a device you are able to get the available characteristics and start sending requests or start retrieving notifications from the device. When the bluetooth device doesn’t receive any requests for a specific period (may differ per device), it will disconnect to save battery power. After getting a device instance (with the previous sample), it’s fairly easy to setup a connection:

 try
{
    await _adapter.ConnectToDeviceAsync(device);
}
catch(DeviceConnectionException e)
{
// ... could not connect to device
}

Note: a device scan is only necessary when connecting to the device for the first time. It’s also possible to initiate a connection based on the UUID of the device.

Get services, characteristics, descriptors
As described above, a service is the first abstraction layer. When an instance of a service is resolved, the characteristics of this specific service can be requested. The same goes for a characteristic and his descriptors. On a characteristic you can request the descriptors.

The different abstraction layers can be requested in a similar way, GetAll or GetById:

// Get All services and getting a specific service
var services = await connectedDevice.GetServicesAsync();
var service = await connectedDevice.GetServiceAsync(Guid.Parse("ffe0ecd2-3d16-4f8d-90de-e89e7fc396a5"));

// Get All characteristics and getting a specific characteristic
var characteristics = await service.GetCharacteristicsAsync();
var characteristic = await service.GetCharacteristicAsync(Guid.Parse("37f97614-f7f7-4ae5-9db8-0023fb4215ca"));

// Get All descriptors and getting a specific descriptor
var descriptors = await characteristic.GetDescriptorsAsync();
var descriptor = await characteristic.GetDescriptorAsync(Guid.Parse("6f361a84-eeac-404c-ae48-e65b9cba6af8"));

Send write command
After retrieving an instance of the characteristic you’re able to interact with it. Writing bytes for example:

await characteristic.WriteAsync(bytes);

Send read command
You can also request information from a characteristic:

var bytes = await characteristic.ReadAsync();

Pretty easy, right? To get you started, you can find an example project on the Bluetooth LE Plugin GitHub page. Although this seems pretty simple,  I’ve experienced some difficulties in making it rock solid. Some tips to improve your code:

  • Run bluetooth code on main thread.
  • Don’t scan for devices and send commands simultaneously, also don’t send multiple commands simultaneously. A characteristic can only execute one request at a time.
  • Adjust ScanMode to suit your use case.
  • Don’t store instances of characteristics or services.

Related links:

Microsoft Build: VS4Mac

Last week I travelled to Seattle to attend the Microsoft Build conference. On the first day of the conference there were a lot of cool announcements related to AI, IoT, Azure and more, but Xamarin wasn’t mentioned at all. Slightly related to Xamarin development was the release of Visual Studio for Mac.

Together with my colleague Marco, I’ll cover announcements made at the Microsoft Build conference in a series of blogpost. You can also read these posts on his blog.

In november Microsoft announced the availability of Visual Studio for Mac (VS4Mac) at Microsoft Connect();-event. In the beginning, MonoDevelop was the IDE to develop C# on a Mac, which later converted to Xamarin Studio (XS). But since the Build-conference this week, VS4Mac has gone GA which made it the prime IDE for C# developers on MacOS. Because of this, XS is discontinued and VS4Mac is the way to go. Awesome!

VS4Mac isn’t just a rebrand of XS, is has tons of new features added. When it was Xamarin Studio, you would be able to build apps, games & services for mobile using the technology from Xamarin. Now that it has turned into Visual Studio, you can even make Web and Cloud applications that you can deploy on Microsoft Azure. But that’s not all: VS4Mac also has C# 7.0 support! You’ll now be able to create stuff like Local functions and more of the great stuff C# 7.0 brings us (all running on Mono 5.0).

When creating a Native Mobile App in VS4Mac, you’ll now have the option to add a Mobile Backend, which adds a ASP.NET Core Web API project to the solution as well. You’ll get three different heads in the solution: The .Droid and .iOS projects (for Android and iOS respectively) and a new, .MobileAppService backend.

Visual Studio for Mac

The project template already comes with a small example to show you on how the projects work together. When running the .MobileAppService project, a web server will start on a certain port (in my example: 52599) which will cause Swagger UI to start up. And now the awesome part: VS4Mac supports Multi-process debugging as well! This means that you can debug the .iOS (or .Droid.) project and .MobileAppService project at the same time, jumping back and forth from front-end to back-end code.

By default, the Mobile projects use a MockDataStore that doesn’t make a connection to the .MobileAppService project. Luckily, it’s pretty simple to connect them to eachother and see the multi-process debugging in action. Take the following steps:

  1. Open up the App.cs file in the Shared project
  2. Set the UseMockDataStore boolean to false
  3. Make sure the BackendUrl has the correct port number

Now both the front- & back-end solutions are communicating with eachother, which you can simply prove by setting breakpoints in both solutions and checking the data. Now you’ll be able to create a full solution with a front- and back-end in the same IDE!

Visual Studio for Mac

In the example above you’ll see the ItemsViewModel , a class within the .iOS solution trying to retrieve the data. It jumps to the ItemController, a class within the .MobileAppService project to provide that data back to iOS. Being able to debug across these different threads allows developers to debug solutions quickly.

Other than an ASP.NET Web API, we’re also able to create a website with ASP.NET MVC or Web Forms. Since VS4Mac is running on Roslyn, syntax highlights for HTML and CSS is available. Even the Razor Syntax is supported, making VS4Mac your one-stop shop for Mobile and Web development as well!

Visual Studio for Mac

But it doesn’t stop there – there’s even support for Docker (in Preview) for those that like to play around with Containers. If you’re using Azure Functions to create a Serverless Architecture, you’re covered. If you’re a user of Unity, selecting a *.cs file now automatically opens up VS4Mac as well. With all this functionality already in VS4Mac, it doesn’t matter if you’re using Windows or MacOS!

As far as we know now, it won’t have an exact feature parity with Visual Studio on Windows. Developing UWP on MacOS wouldn’t make much sense as well as developing MacOS apps on Windows doesn’t make sense. But more and more functionality (especially Azure support) will be ported to VS4Mac soon, making it possible to have all the functionality you need to develop C# on MacOS. Go ahead and try it out yourself!

Related links:

Xamarin: UITest backdoor

When running your UI tests, locally or in Xamarin Test Cloud, you sometimes want to execute code in your app from your tests. You might for instance want to setup some mock implementations instead of making actual API calls, or you might want to trigger some OS specific code from your tests. In these scenario’s backdoors come in handy!

Backdoors itself are not very complex, but it opens up a lot of possibilities with UI tests. In the past I used backdoors to:

  • Setup authentication for tests
  • Create a specific state in your app to run your tests in.
  • Set mock implementations from my UI tests.
  • Trigger deeplink

And I can think of a lot more useful scenario’s. You can create a backdoor with the following code:

iOS
In your AppDelegate class you need to create an method that returns NSString, is public,  is annotated with Export attribute and takes an NSString as parameter. For example:

public class AppDelegate : UIApplicationDelegate
{
 [Export("myBackdoorMethod:")] // notice the colon at the end of the method name
 public NSString MyBackdoorMethod(NSString value)
 {
 // In through the backdoor - do some work.
 }
}

Android
On Android you need to create a method in your MainActivity that is public, returns string/void, is annotated with Export attribute and takes an string/int/bool as parameter:

public class MainActivity : Activity
{
    [Export("MyBackdoorMethod")]
    public void MyBackdoorMethod(string value)
    {
        // In through the backdoor - do some work.
    }
}

Invoking the backdoor from your UI tests:

if (app is Xamarin.UITest.iOS.iOSApp)
{
    app.Invoke("myBackdoorMethod:", "exampleString");
}
else
{
    app.Invoke("MyBackdoorMethod", "exampleString");
}

Note: The signature of the backdoor methods is very important as the Backdoors – Xamarin docs mention.

If you want to switch out your actual implementations for mocks, the use of compiler flags (combined with build configurations) might be more suited. You can read more on this over here.

Related links:

Build configurations and compiler flags

If you have developed some Xamarin applications in the past, you might have stumbled on the excessive range of configuration options you can choose from. The settings you’re using in development may be very different from your Release settings. For example; you don’t want to include debug information in the app that will be published to the App Stores. It will increase the app size enormously and expose technical info about your app that might be useful to malicious people.

Besides the difference of Release and Debug configurations, you sometimes need a extra set of configurations. Visual Studio allows you to create additional build configurations:

Configuration Manager
Configuration Manager
Build configurations
Build configurations

Compiler flags / Conditional compilation symbols

Per build configuration you can also specify a set of compiler flags. Compiler flags on itself don’t have any impact on your app, but you can use these flags in your code. By default the build configuration called Debug, has a compiler flag called “Debug”. In your code you can check if this flag is set (and therefor Debug configuration is active) and execute some Debug code. A common scenario is to Log additional information when the Debug flag is set.

Compiler flags
Setting compiler flags

Using compiler flag in code:

#if Debug
	InitializeUiTests();
#endif

Related links:

Xamarin: The magic of Fody weaving

When creating Xamarin apps a lot of people choose to go with the MVVM pattern. There are a lot of beautiful frameworks out there to make the life of an MVVM developer easier, but sometimes you just want to do it the hard way and write it yourself.

If you ever created an Xamarin app using the MVVM pattern (without any framework) and data binding, you may have noticed there is a lot of boilerplate code to notify property changes. As your ViewModels grow, this becomes a nightmare!

Fody.PropertyChanged to the rescue!
Fody is an extensible library that adds an post build task to the MSBuild pipeline. With this task it manipulates the generated IL code, depending on what add-ins you are using. Add-ins can be build on the Fody core. One of the add-ins is Fody.PropertyChanged. As you might guess, this add-in generates the code for notifying changes in a ViewModel. The add-in will look for properties in classes that implement INotifyPropertyChanged or properties/classes annotated with the [ImplementPropertyChanged] attribute.

Example class PersonViewModel:

[ImplementPropertyChanged]
public class PersonViewModel
{
public string GivenNames { get; set; }
public string FamilyName { get; set; }

public string FullName
{
get
{
return string.Format("{0} {1}", GivenNames, FamilyName);
}
}
}

After applying Fody magic it will become:

public class PersonViewModel : INotifyPropertyChanged
{
public event PropertyChangedEventHandler PropertyChanged;

string givenNames;
public string GivenNames
{
get { return givenNames; }
set
{
if (value != givenNames)
{
givenNames = value;
OnPropertyChanged("GivenNames");
OnPropertyChanged("FullName");
}
}
}

string familyName;
public string FamilyName
{
get { return familyName; }
set
{
if (value != familyName)
{
familyName = value;
OnPropertyChanged("FamilyName");
OnPropertyChanged("FullName");
}
}
}

public string FullName
{
get
{
return string.Format("{0} {1}", GivenNames, FamilyName);
}
}

public virtual void OnPropertyChanged(string propertyName)
{
var propertyChanged = PropertyChanged;
if (propertyChanged != null)
{
propertyChanged(this, new PropertyChangedEventArgs(propertyName));
}
}
}

Fody.PropertyChanged has another killer feature called Fody NotificationInterception which makes it possible to execute some code before propertyChanged gets triggered. This feature can be for example used for logging purpose or to make sure you are calling propertyChanged on the main thread. See related links for more info.

If you want to give Fody.PropertyChanged (or any other Fody add-in) a try, just install the NuGet package and you’re good to go!

Note:
Fody requires your release builds to contain debug symbols. You can enable this in your project settings by setting Build->compiler->debug information to “Symbols only”.

Fody-release

Related links: