Latency Measurements in a Vision Lab

We recently moved to a new building and the labs moved with us. We did not only use this opportunity to get rid of old computers and monitors, but also to thoroughly check that our timing is correct.

This work was mostly done by Ule Diallo, an intern from Marburg University. We were very lucky to have him!

TLDR;

We searched for fixed and jittered delays in our setup. We measured many monitors with two luminance sensors. We also checked our parallel-ports trigger-timing. We did not find jittered delays, the fixed delays are, as expected, only by the monitors.

Why is timing important?

For EEG, but also Eye-Tracking or Reaction Time measurements, effects can be quite small (for some paradigms \<10ms effects can be important. Measurement noise can be an issue (even though I recently read a paper that jitters of 10-15ms do not matter because subject variance is so high, but I can’t find it right now). For computer mice you can see an example of high jitter here and mice are supposed to be faster/less variable than keyboards!

In EEG, a P100 component is maybe 30ms broad. You don’t necessarily want to jitter it even further.

For most purposes, a fixed delay does not matter, you could simply recalculate your EEG or your reaction times. But a jitter is really the bad thing, very difficult to compensate for!

Where does jitter come from?

  1. Presentation programs
  2. Synchronization delays between computers/systems/amplifiers/eyetrackers/parallelports
  3. Lag of LCD/CRT Monitors
    monitor_delays
    Left PC is the eyetracking computer (eyelink/SR-Research). Middle computer is the stimulus computer, right is the monitor with a custom made luminance sensor and bottom the EEG amplifier. As you can see from the graph, the monitor (measured by a photosensor) is really the biggest source of delay (if not strictly controlled).

Parallel Port Timing

Our stimulus host PC communicates with the EEG using parallel port electrical triggers. We first of all confirmed that we can trigger with submillisecond speed (see table here). Also sometimes we use an eye-tracker (ET) in the loop. What we do is send over LAN a command to set the parallel port of the ET host which goes to the EEG. By that we have all three machines synchronized by the event. Again we find only some glitches in less than 0.0002% of cases (all glory details here).

Monitor timing

We mostly use LCD monitors in our lab, and I have the feeling that many labs move towards those monitors (away from CRT technology) anyway. We measured the input lag (the time needed to detect the first luminance-change) and the raise-time (the time needed until the actual color/luminance we wanted was reached). The sum of the two are called responsetime
timings explained

We displayed the stimuli using psychtoolbox-3, we waited after each stimulus draw for the vertical-refresh (in addition to V-Sync). Ule wrote some scripts to automatically extract the relevant numbers. The summary plot can be seen here:
summary plot lcd timing
X-Axes are different monitors, Y-Axes are the measured delays, lower is better. Top-Row is the raisetime, middle row the input lag and last row is the summed responsetime. Colors depict different changes i.e. from white to black, white to gray etc. Columns depict two different sensors, sensor one on the top, sensor two at the bottom of the screen. The monitors seem to respond with a low variance (errorbars are SD). Good news for us!

We see that gray to white and black to white are several milliseconds slower than switches from black to gray or gray to black.

We see that our old Apple Cinema 30″ monitor has some trouble (and also in generally is slow). Likely cause: old IPS Panel and PMD (see below) for backlight.
Luckily we recently replaced it with an Asus 32″ inch, the second in line. Our BenQ Monitors (2 identical ones and one 144Hz) seem to run just fine, with a minimal total input lag of ~8ms to 14ms (the right panel shows the luminance in the lower right corner, thus a delay of one refresh is expected, with 144Hz that’s 7ms).

Lessons Learned

  • Pulse-Width-Modulation ruins your day
    Some monitors change the brightness by turning on and off the backlight with a given frequency. This is called PWM. The frequency can be as low as 200Hz. You clearly don’t want to have additional strong modulation in your monitor. Either check that your monitor does not do PWM or turn the brightness completely up

  • The bottom of the monitor is one refreshtime slower than the top.
    The refresh of a LCD monitor starts on the top and ends at the bottom, thus with 120Hz you have a 8ms time delay between top and bottom. With 60Hz a 16ms delay. This is also true for CRTs. I like this video

Bonus: G-Sync/FreeSync vs. V-Sync

Disclaimer: We don’t own a FreeSync/G-Sync system, but this is what I understood while reading a lot about monitors. check out this longer guide

A screen is refreshed every 8.33ms (@120Hz). It sometimes happen, that your frame has been calculated faster than the 8ms. In principle the graphicscard can force the monitor to restart its updating from the top with the new frame. This results in ugly “tearing” of the monitor. To get rid of it, V-Sync forces the graphicscard to wait until the refresh of the monitor is finished.

FreeSync/GSync is a different thing: Usually the monitor starts a new refresh immediately after it finished the old one. If no new frame arrived it will update the old one. With G-Sync it simply waits until a new frame has been produced and thus possible is faster, without any tearing.

Thus for only reducing input-lag, i.e. for gaze-dependent display, g-sync does not really help – if your calculations are all well below ~8ms (which they usually are for our experiments)

Conclusions

All in all I’m very happy with our setup. We don’t have mayor lags or jitters somewhere, we now know exactly how much to correct and we have a nice infrastructure to remeasure the monitors for each experiment. I also learned quite a bit about monitors and latency measurements.

Thanks

Many thanks to Ule Diallo for doing most of the work. Also thanks to Silja Timm and Anna Gert

Graphics/Icons:

The icons were taken from the awesome Noun Projekt
by Edward Boatman,by Iconic,by Ji Sub Jeong, by Hans, by Vaibhav Radhakrishnan, by ProSymbols

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