svGUI - Manage R GUIs in a central place

Philippe Grosjean (


R is designed to be used in different ways. The “Command Line Interface” (CLI) is a first way to interact with R. However, R also supports various “Graphical User Interfaces” (GUI), like RGui.exe on Windows, on MacOS, RStudio, etc. It also provides bridge to a few graphical toolkits or widgets, namely Tk and Gtk2. Other GUIs are build using these widgets, like R Commander. However, the different GUI items are not always collaborating well with each other, and it is sometimes hard to know which GUI is currently running in the R environment.

Moreover, GUIs are sometimes criticized for leading to not reproducible analyses, because they imply user interaction. It is sometimes useful to be able to tune off GUI actions in a script, in order to make it run non-interactively, and in a reproducible way (providing you give a default value that can be used for the tests).

‘svGUI’ solves these two problems by exposing information and status about running GUIs in R in a central place, and by allowing to by-pass GUI elements like modal dialog boxes on request, for one or all running GUIs. Here is how.

Central location for GUI information and status

‘svGUI’ uses a ‘gui’ S3 object to store information about a GUI. This object is located on the search path1. It is basically a sub-classed environment that contains different objects. When loading ‘svGUI’, one default ‘gui’ object is created, named .GUI:

#> The default SciViews GUI (.GUI)
#> using widgets from: nativeGUI, textCLI

This object contains various information about GUI items it uses (none for the moment):

#> [1] "res"     "status"  "widgets" "startUI" "ask"     "name"    "call"   
#> [8] "setUI"

A frequently-used GUI item is a modal dialog box, a dialog box prompting for some data and that blocks the R script until it is dismissed. (see ‘svDialogs’ for such ‘svGUI’ compatible dialog boxes). For instance, an input box would prompt for your name. An ‘svGUI’-compatible dialog box will report its state, message and result in its corresponding ‘gui’ object at several occasions:

  1. When the dialog box is initialized,
  2. When the user changes something in the dialog box,
  3. When the dialog box is closed (either with the OK button, or perhaps, cancelled with a Cancel button),
  4. If, for some reasons, an error occurred,
  5. Finally, if the dialog box is by-passed, providing a default value instead.

So, the state of the dialog box is accessible in our ‘gui’ object.

Case 5 requires a little bit more of explanation, here under.

Inactivate modal dialog boxes

‘svGUI’ gives full power to the end-user: he can decide to inactivate (by-pass) modal dialog boxes. So, in our example, the input box would not be displayed. Of course, the code must be designed to give a default value that is suitable for the rest of the process in that case, say, a generic name. It is the responsibility of the dialog box designer to provide a way to gracefully by-pass the dialog box.

In order to tell that you don’t want to be interrupted in your GUI, you just change the gui_ask() property to FALSE:

#> [1] TRUE
# Turn the ask property off, so that the GUI does not interrupt R any more
gui_ask(.GUI) <- FALSE
#> [1] FALSE

GUI management and examples

You can create as many different ‘gui’ objects as you want. They can differ by the GUI widgets you use (set by its widgets property), or can be prohibited individually to interrupt R, using gui_ask(). Use gui_list() to get the list of all currently active GUIs.

gui_add("tk_gui", widgets = "tcltk", ask = TRUE)
#> Graphical User Interface: tk_gui
#> using widgets from: tcltk
#> [1] ".GUI"   "tk_gui"

Now, the ‘gui’ object does nothing by itself. It only centralizes key information about your GUI items. You must use (or design) ‘svGUI’-compatible code to make something useful with it. For a good example of a series of dialog boxes using the ‘gui’ object, take a look at the ‘svDialogs’ package.

  1. All the ‘gui’ objects are stored in an environment called SciViews:TempEnv that is attached to the search path.↩︎