How to Fix OpenSolaris Keyboard Irregularities with Virtual Box

Virtual Box is great: It allows you to install OS A on OS B for impressively large sets of A and B OSes and their permutations. Almost everything works smoothly and seamlessly between host and guest: Cut&Paste, File sharing, networking, USB pass-through, even seamless windows are supported.

But there's one little glitch that is still a little annoying, but apparently not annoying enough for someone else to have blogged about this before: Keyboard remapping on Mac OS X hosts.

The Problem

Simple problem: Macs are different than PCs (phew), but they have slightly different keyboard mappings (oops). Most notably, on my German keyboard, the "<" key at the bottom left on the Mac will yield "\^" on OpenSolaris and vice versa. Same thing goes for "@", which is Right-Alt-L on the Mac, but Right-Alt-Q on PCs. Similar difficulties are encountered if you try to create a "|" pipe symbol or angular/curved brackets ("[]" and "{}" respectively).

Pressing the Right Keys

Usually no big deal. Close your eyes and blindly type what you would type on a PC and that'll give you a good hint at where the right keystrokes are. That works because Virtual Box actually maps the physical locations of the keys between host and guest, but not what's painted on them. So, with a little practice, you should be fine. But what happens if you can't quite remember what that PC keyboard looked like?

Last Friday I had an hour or so left and the playfulness of the problem got the better of me, so I decided to see if this can be fixed the Unix way. It's actually quite easy.

Searching for a cure

There are some helpful hints on the net, most notably Petr Hruska's entry on "Switching Keyboard Layout in Solaris", but it only deals with internationalization issues. What if you have the keyboard nationalities right, but individual keys are still different as in the Mac/PC case? Here's a step-by-step guide to help you with any keyboard remapping problem, plus a bonus table for OpenSolaris on Macbook users to get you started:

Xmodmap to the rescue

  1. We're going to use xmodmap(1) to remap the keys on our keyboard. Check out the man-page to familiarize yourself with how it works.
  2. See the keystrokes as OpenSolaris sees them: Use xev(6) to find out what keycodes belong to the keys you want to correct.
  3. Check out what OpenSolaris is thinking about your problematic keys, either by testing them in a terminal or by checking your version of the standard Sun USB keyboard layouts.
  4. Before you start modifying the current keyboard mapping, get the currently active one by saying something like:
    xmakemap > ~/.xmodmaprc.current
    Caution: There seems to be a bug in xmakemap that corrupts some of the entires. So, please use this only for reference but do not feed this file back into xmodmap (see later) or you'll likely make your keyboard unusable (until this bug is resolved).
  5. Start editing your own remapping script for xmodmap:
    vi ~/.xmodmaprc
  6. For each key you want to remap, copy it's keycode entry from the xmakemap output into your own remapping table and modify to taste. Be careful, some entries from xmakemap are broken, but you should be able to figure those out. Here's my current .xmodmaprc file as a reference:
    !
    ! Set up keys for a MacBook Pro running OpenSolaris on VirtualBox
    !
    !       Key   Unshifted       Shifted         AltGraph        AltGraph-Shifted
    !       ---   --------------- --------------- --------------- ----------------
    
    keycode  49 = less            greater
    keycode  94 = asciicircum     degree          asciicircum     degree
    keycode  14 = 5               percent         bracketleft
    keycode  15 = 6               ampersand       bracketright
    keycode  16 = 7               slash           bar             backslash
    keycode  17 = 8               parenleft       braceleft
    keycode  18 = 9               parenright      braceright
    keycode  24 = q               Q               q               Q
    keycode  46 = l               L               at
    keycode  57 = n               N               asciitilde
    
    This works well on my MacBook Pro, your mileage may vary.
  7. You can activate your remapping by saying something like:
    xmodmap ~/.xmodmaprc
  8. In case something goes wrong and you render your keyboard useless, you can restart your X server by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Backspace twice.
  9. If you're happy with your remapping, you can automatically activate it on every login by using the System->Preferences->Sessions panel and adding an entry for the above xmodmap command there.

Conclusion

I hope this little exercise in some lesser known X-Windows commands (Hi Jörg) was useful for you, now you shouldn't need to worry too much about keyboard mapping inconsistencies any more.

If you want to learn a little more about modifying your keyboard, check out this section of the OpenSolaris docs.

The example keymap modifications above work well for me, but I'm sure I've forgotten a key or two. What other keys did you remap and why? Feel free to leave me a comment below.

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