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Managing Low-Level Keyboard Hooks in VB .NET

  • April 18, 2003
  • By Paul Kimmel
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I am amazed at the overwhelming and disproportionately high number of email responses I get about hooking the keyboard. Many people in a diverse group of industries have legitimate reasons for wanting to block certain key combinations. Last November, I wrote about low-level keyboard hooks for VB6 (see Managing Low-Level Keyboard Hooks with the Windows API, November 18, 2002 in codeguru.com's VB Today.) In response to queries from many of you, I have revised the keyboard hooks example for VB .NET.

The inimitable Robbie Powell read my earlier article on keyboard trapping and wanted to use the code. Mr. Powell was tasked with trapping specific key combinations for a testing application. The basic idea is that testees should not be distracted during a test. By eliminating the ability to open an application other than the test application, their attention was more ably focused. Considering the nature and importance of the candidate's future endeavors, a bit of tunnel vision during testing was warranted. Unfortunately, the code from the November article does not port directly from VB6 to VB.NET. Mr. Powell did a superlative job porting the code but something still didn't work quite right. Together we figured out the differences, which are provided here.

Permit me to rehash some of the material in the November article for those who did not have an opportunity to read that article. If you have read the November article and just need to fill in the blanks, I encourage you to skip ahead to the Implementing the Keyboard Delegate section and The Complete Code Listing section. For a complete presentation, continue.

Writing API Declarations

The .NET Framework has tidily wrapped up much of the Windows API in methods that are significantly easier to use. However, occasionally you may need to turn to the Windows API. Trapping keystrokes from one application for all applications is a pretty low-level operation, and in such an instance you need to turn to the Windows API. Consequently, you will need to declare API methods.

For VB.NET developers, we can use the old-style Declare syntax to import DLL library methods. One also has the ability to use new .NET attributes for declaring API methods, specifically the DllImportAttribute. The Declare keyword is shorthand notation that causes the compiler to add and use the DllImportAttribute. Simply keep in mind that you will need to use the DllImportAttribute if you are programming in some other .NET language besides VB.NET. For our purposes, we will use the convenience notation.

To trap and examine keys before other applications get them, we need to hook the keyboard (ultimately release the hook), call the old keyboard handler, and interpret key combinations. To accomplish this feat, we need to import the SetWindowsHookEx, UnhookWindowsHookEx, CallNextHookEx, and GetAsyncState. Perhaps you will understand the rationale a bit better with some background information. So, before we look at the syntactic mechanics of a declaration statement, let's take a quick historical journey.

Understanding Low-Level Hooks

It seems like just a few brief years ago that you couldn't write anything interesting without writing interrupt handlers. In very low memory, Basic Input and Output (BIOS) code is loaded. This code provides the basic capabilities that your PC needs. (Assuming you are using a DOS-based PC. I imagine a MAC has something analogous to the BIOS for PCs...) These basic services are called interrupt handlers, and they are referred to by number. For example, interrupt 5 is the print screen interrupt. Interrupt 0x10 (hexadecimal) provides direct video input and output, interrupt 0x19 will reboot your computer, and interrupts 0x9 and 0x16 manage keyboard input. Pretty powerful stuff, these interrupt handlers.

Just a few years ago, one would have to write a custom interrupt handler and redirect the BIOS code to the new handler to replace the basic services. For example, prior to Windows, if code attempted to read from the A: drive and no diskette were in the drive, an application would hang. However, if the code provided an interrupt 0x24 handler, the error could be caught and new behavior provided. Supplanting basic BIOS behavior with new behavior is exactly what popup programs and TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) utilities did all the time. Problematically, working at this level is an all or nothing proposition. Make a mistake and the whole PC crashed. These very low-level capabilities can still be accessed—for example, write asm int 3 end in Delphi and the debugger will stop because interrupt 3 is a low-level breakpoint. However, because replacing basic system services can result in unreliable PC behavior, operating system engineers were motivated to shield programmers from these mistakes.

To aid in productivity, we work at a higher level of abstraction. Instead of writing an interrupt handler for interrupt 0x9 and 0x16 to handle keyboard input directly, we simply write an event handler for the KeyDown (or some related) event handler. However, you can still interact with the operating system at a much lower level of abstraction than the VB KeyDown event. Simply keep in mind that the lower you go, the more responsibility you have. Back to the present.

To trap keystrokes before other applications get them, we have to interact with the operating system somewhere between the BIOS' interrupt handler and the high-level KeyDown event. To trap all keys, we are closer to the BIOS, perhaps, than the KeyDown event. Consequently, care must be exercised.

Declaring API Methods

The convenience syntax for declaring an API method is very similar to the notation used in VB6. We need to use the Declare keyword, match the signature of the API method, indicate the library that contains the API method, and optionally, indicate the visibility. For example, to import the SetWindowsHookEx API method, we might write:

Public Declare Function SetWindowsHookEx Lib "user32" _
    Alias "SetWindowsHookExA" (ByVal idHook As Integer, _
    ByVal lpfn As KeyboardHookDelegate, ByVal hmod As Integer, _
    ByVal dwThreadId As Integer) As Integer

Here is the breakdown of the declaration statement:

  • Public—Defines the visibility as Public. (Any code can call this method.)
  • Declare—The keyword that indicates that we are implicitly importing a library method
  • Function—The library method returns a value
  • SetWindowsHookEx—The name we'll use in our code
  • Lib "user32"—Specifies the library that contains the method. (You can find the physical API DLL by searching for user32.dll on your PC.)
  • Alias "SetWindowsHookExA"—Indicates the real name of the method in the DLL

The rest of the declaration defines the signature of the DLL method. If you look closely at the declaration, you will notice something suspicious—KeyboardHookDelegate. Delegates didn't exist prior to .NET, yet the declaration clearly uses something call KeyboardHookDelegate.

The API method does not use a delegate. The API method actually defines the lpfn argument as a 32-bit integer. The CLR does an excellent job matching the needs of the API—a pointer to a function—with an analogous .NET entity a delegate. Delegates are classes that contain function pointers; however, a delegate is a class that is much more than just the address of a function. A function pointer can be represented as a 32-bit integer, so it is clear that some fudging is done for us to permit a delegate to be passed where only an integer is needed. The net benefit is that we can use more convenient .NET types where previously less convenient raw data types would have been used. Additional declarations are shown in The Complete Code Listing.

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