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Device Orientation & Motion

Device motion and orientation events provide access to the built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass in mobile devices.

These events can be used for many purposes; in gaming, for example, to control the direction or action of a character. When used with geolocation, they can help create more accurate turn-by-turn navigation or provide information about a specific location.

TL;DR

  • Detect which side of the device is up and how the device is rotating.
  • Learn when and how to respond to motion and orientation events.

Which end is up?

To use the data that the device orientation and motion events return, it is important to understand the values provided.

Earth coordinate frame

The Earth coordinate frame, described by the values X, Y, and Z, is aligned based on gravity and standard magnetic orientation.

Coordinate system
X Represents the east-west direction (where east is positive).
Y Represents the north-south direction (where north is positive).
Z Represents the up-down direction, perpendicular to the ground (where up is positive).

Device coordinate frame

illustration of device coordinate frame
Illustration of device coordinate frame

The device coordinate frame, described by the values x, y, and z, is aligned based on the center of the device.

Coordinate system
X In the plane of the screen, positive to the right.
Y In the plane of the screen, positive towards the top.
Z Perpendicular to the screen or keyboard, positive extending away.

On a phone or tablet, the orientation of the device is based on the typical orientation of the screen. For phones and tablets, it is based on the device being in portrait mode. For desktop or laptop computers, the orientation is considered in relation to the keyboard.

Rotation data

Rotation data is returned as a Euler angle, representing the number of degrees of difference between the device coordinate frame and the Earth coordinate frame.

Alpha

illustration of device coordinate frame
Illustration of alpha in the device coordinate frame

The rotation around the z axis. The alpha value is 0° when the top of the device is pointed directly north. As the device is rotated counter-clockwise, the alpha value increases.

Beta

illustration of device coordinate frame
Illustration of beta in the device coordinate frame

The rotation around the x axis. The beta value is 0° when the top and bottom of the device are equidistant from the surface of the earth. The value increases as the top of the device is tipped toward the surface of the earth.

Gamma

illustration of device coordinate frame
Illustration of gamma in the device coordinate frame

The rotation around the y axis. The gamma value is 0° when the left and right edges of the device are equidistant from the surface of the earth. The value increases as the right side is tipped towards the surface of the earth.

Device orientation

The device orientation event returns rotation data, which includes how much the device is leaning front-to-back, side-to-side, and, if the phone or laptop has a compass, the direction the device is facing.

Use sparingly. Test for support. Don't update the UI on every orientation event; instead, sync to requestAnimationFrame.

When to use device orientation events

There are several uses for device orientation events. Examples include the following:

  • Update a map as the user moves.
  • Subtle UI tweaks, for example, adding parallax effects.
  • Combined with geolocation, can be used for turn-by-turn navigation.

Check for support and listen for events

To listen for DeviceOrientationEvent, first check to see if the browser supports the events. Then, attach an event listener to the window object listening for deviceorientation events.

if (window.DeviceOrientationEvent) {
  window.addEventListener('deviceorientation', deviceOrientationHandler, false);
  document.getElementById("doeSupported").innerText = "Supported!";
}

Handle the device orientation events

The device orientation event fires when the device moves or changes orientation. It returns data about the difference between the device in its current position in relation to the Earth coordinate frame.

The event typically returns three properties: alpha, beta, and gamma. On Mobile Safari, an additional parameter webkitCompassHeading is returned with the compass heading.

Device motion

The device orientation event returns rotation data, which includes how much the device is leaning front-to-back, side-to-side, and, if the phone or laptop has a compass, the direction the device is facing.

Use device motion for when the current motion of the device is needed. rotationRate is provided in °/sec. acceleration and accelerationWithGravity are provided in m/sec2. Be aware of differences between browser implementations.

When to use device motion events

There are several uses for device motion events. Examples include the following:

  • Shake gesture to refresh data.
  • In games, to cause characters to jump or move.
  • For health and fitness apps.

Check for support and listen for events

To listen for DeviceMotionEvent, first check to see if the events are supported in the browser. Then attach an event listener to the window object listening for devicemotion events.

if (window.DeviceMotionEvent) {
  window.addEventListener('devicemotion', deviceMotionHandler);
  setTimeout(stopJump, 3*1000);
}

Handle the device motion events

The device motion event fires on a regular interval and returns data about the rotation (in °/second) and acceleration (in m/second2) of the device, at that moment in time. Some devices do not have the hardware to exclude the effect of gravity.

The event returns four properties, accelerationIncludingGravity, acceleration, which excludes the effects of gravity, rotationRate, and interval.

For example, let's take a look at a phone, lying on a flat table, with its screen facing up.

State Rotation Acceleration (m/s2) Acceleration with gravity (m/s2)
Not moving [0, 0, 0] [0, 0, 0] [0, 0, 9.8]
Moving up towards the sky [0, 0, 0] [0, 0, 5] [0, 0, 14.81]
Moving only to the right [0, 0, 0] [3, 0, 0] [3, 0, 9.81]
Moving up and to the right [0, 0, 0] [5, 0, 5] [5, 0, 14.81]

Conversely, if the phone were held so the screen was perpendicular to the ground, and was directly visible to the viewer:

State Rotation Acceleration (m/s2) Acceleration with gravity (m/s2)
Not moving [0, 0, 0] [0, 0, 0] [0, 9.81, 0]
Moving up towards the sky [0, 0, 0] [0, 5, 0] [0, 14.81, 0]
Moving only to the right [0, 0, 0] [3, 0, 0] [3, 9.81, 0]
Moving up and to the right [0, 0, 0] [5, 5, 0] [5, 14.81, 0]

Sample: Calculating the maximum acceleration of an object

One way to use device motion events is to calculate the maximum acceleration of an object. For example, what's the maximum acceleration of a person jumping?

if (evt.acceleration.x > jumpMax.x) {
  jumpMax.x = evt.acceleration.x;
}
if (evt.acceleration.y > jumpMax.y) {
  jumpMax.y = evt.acceleration.y;
}
if (evt.acceleration.z > jumpMax.z) {
  jumpMax.z = evt.acceleration.z;
}

After tapping the Go! button, the user is told to jump. During that time, the page stores the maximum (and minimum) acceleration values, and after the jump, tells the user their maximum acceleration.