Listbox selection hacks

Last week a reader on the CSSM newsgroup asked whether it is possible to programmatically deselect all listbox items. By default, Matlab listboxes enable a single item selection: trying to deselect it interactively has no effect, while trying to set the listbox’s Value property to empty ([]) results in the listbox disappearing and a warning issued to the Matlab console:

Single-selection Matlab listbox

>> hListbox = uicontrol('Style','list', 'String',{'item #1','item #2','item #3','item #4','item #5','item #6'});
>> set(hListbox,'Value',[]);
Warning: Single-selection 'listbox' control requires a scalar Value.
Control will not be rendered until all of its parameter values are valid
(Type "warning off MATLAB:hg:uicontrol:ValueMustBeScalar" to suppress this warning.)

The reader’s question was whether there is a way to bypass this limitation so that no listbox item will be selected. The answer to this question was provided by MathWorker Steve(n) Lord. Steve is a very long-time benefactor of the Matlab community with endless, tireless, and patient advise to queries small and large (way beyond the point that would have frustrated mere mortals). Steve pointed out that by default, Matlab listboxes only enable a single selection – not more and not less. However, when the listbox’s Max value is set to be >1, the listbox enables multiple-items selection, meaning that Value accepts and reports an array of item indices, and there is nothing that prevents this array from being empty (meaning no items selected):

>> hListbox = uicontrol('Style','list', 'Max',2, 'String',{'item #1','item #2','item #3','item #4','item #5','item #6'});
>> set(hListbox,'Value',[]);  % this is ok - listbox appears with no items selected

Note: actually, the listbox checks the value of MaxMin, but by default Min=0 and there is really no reason to modify this default value, just Max.

While this makes sense if you think about it, the existing documentation makes no mention of this fact:

The Max property value helps determine whether the user can select multiple items in the list box simultaneously. If Max – Min > 1, then the user can select multiple items simultaneously. Otherwise, the user cannot select multiple items simultaneously. If you set the Max and Min properties to allow multiple selections, then the Value property value can be a vector of indices.

Some readers might think that this feature is not really undocumented, since it does not directly conflict with the documentation text, but then so are many other undocumented aspects and features on this blog, which are not mentioned anywhere in the official documentation. I contend that if this feature is officially supported, then it deserves an explicit sentence in the official documentation.

However, the original CSSM reader wanted to preserve Matlab’s single-selection model while enabling deselection of an item. Basically, the reader wanted a selection model that enables 0 or 1 selections, but not 2 or more. This requires some tweaking using the listbox’s selection callback:

function test(hListbox, eventData)
   value = get(hListbox, 'Value');
   if numel(value) > 1
       set(hListbox, 'Value', value(1));

…or a callback-function version that is a bit better because it takes the previous selection into account and tries to set the new selection to the latest-selected item (this works in most cases, but not with shift-clicks as explained below):

function myCallbackFunc(hListbox, eventData)
   lastValue = getappdata(hListbox, 'lastValue');
   value = get(hListbox, 'Value');
   if ~isequal(value, lastValue)
      value2 = setdiff(value, lastValue);
      if isempty(value2)
         setappdata(hListbox, 'lastValue', value);
         value = value2(1);  % see quirk below
         setappdata(hListbox, 'lastValue', value);
         set(hListbox, 'Value', value);

This does the job of enabling only a single selection at the same time as allowing the user to interactively deselect that item (by ctrl-clicking it).

There’s just a few quirks: If the user selects a block of items (using shift-click), then only the second-from-top item in the block is selected, rather than the expected last-selected item. This is due to line #9 in the callback code which selects the first value. Matlab does not provide us with information about which item was clicked, so this cannot be helped using pure Matlab. Another quirk that cannot easily be solved using pure Matlab is the flicker that occurs when the selection changes and is then corrected by the callback.

We can solve both of these problems using the listbox’s underlying Java component, which we can retrieve using my findjobj utility:

% No need for the standard Matlab callback now
% Get the underlying Java component peer
jScrollPane = findjobj(h);
jListbox = jScrollPane.getViewport.getView;
jListbox = handle(jListbox,'CallbackProperties');  % enable callbacks
% Attach our callback to the listbox's Java peer
jListbox.ValueChangedCallback = {@myCallbackFunc, hListbox};
function myCallbackFunc(jListbox, eventData, hListbox)
   if numel(jListbox.getSelectedIndices) > 1
      set(hListbox, 'Value', jListbox.getLeadSelectionIndex+1);  % +1 because Java indices start at 0

We can use a similar mechanism to control other aspects of selection, for example to enable only up to 3 selections but no more etc.

We can use this underlying Java component peer for a few other useful selection-related hacks: First, we can use the peer’s RightSelectionEnabled property or setRightSelectionEnabled() method to enable the user to select by right-clicking listbox items (this is disabled by default):

jListbox.setRightSelectionEnabled(true);  % false by default
set(jListbox,'RightSelectionEnabled',true);  % equivalent alternative

A similarly useful property is DragSelectionEnabled (or the corresponding setDragSelectionEnabled() method), which is true by default, and controls whether the selection is extended to other items when the mouse drags an item up or down the listbox.

Finally, we can control whether in multi-selection mode we enable the user to only select a single contiguous block of items, or not (which is Matlab’s default behavior). This is set via the SelectionMode property (or associated setSelectionMode() method), as follows:

jListbox.setSelectionMode(1);  % equivalent alternative (less maintainable/readable, but simpler)

SINGLE_SELECTION (default for Max=1)SINGLE_INTERVAL_SELECTION (only possible with Java)MULTIPLE_INTERVAL_SELECTION (default for Max>1)
(Matlab default for Max=1)(only possible with Java)(Matlab default for Max>1)

Additional listbox customizations can be found in related posts on this blog (see links below), or in section 6.6 of my Matlab-Java Programming Secrets book (which is still selling nicely almost five years after its publication, to the pleasant surprise of my publisher…).

Categories: GUI, Java, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, UI controls, Undocumented feature

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4 Responses to Listbox selection hacks

  1. Radek says:

    I am trying to figure out how to simulate held Ctrl key in ListBox.

    I already tried using the callback and programatically add previous selection to new one, but this one works when mouse key is released, so everything goes empty and then selected back.
    MousePressedCallback doesn’t work well either because selection is performed after this event so my selection is overridden anyway.

    I have a feeling something would need to be changed setSelectionModel

    • @Radek – you are not making any sense. “Simulate held Ctrl key”? all you need to do is to set the Value property to an array of indexes (e.g. [1,3,5,7]) and then the listbox selection will be updated appropriately.

    • Radek says:

      @Yair Altman – I meant I want to be able to click items on the list and each time a click new item it would be selected without clearing the others. So the user by default wouldn’t need to hold Ctrl key.
      I know in Java it is possible to override SelectionModel behavior, but in Matlab I don’t know how.

    • @Radek – I think that the end-result would not be intuitive to users so I advise against doing this.

      If you still want to do it, then you could either update the underlying Java SelectionModel, or do it programmatically in Matlab: you could use a similar callback function as the second one in my post, and use the Matlab union function to merge the previous selection values with the newly-selected value(s).

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