BeampositionQueries – What they are used for, and what can go wrong.

GNU/Linux, MacOS-X and MS-Windows provide a mechanism that allows to
query the scanline which is currently updated by the scanning beam of a
CRT display or by the equivalent mechanism in a video beamer or flat
panel display, the so called “beamposition”.

We use this mechanism for two purposes:

  1. Independent measurement of the monitor refresh interval: Psychtoolbox
    executes a measurement loop during Screen(‘OpenWindow’) where it determines
    the monitor refresh interval. It takes a timestamp whenever the beamposition
    resets to zero at the start of a new display refresh cycle. The difference
    between consecutive timestamps is a sample of refresh duration. The samples
    of 50 consecutive refresh cycles are averaged. The “length” of the VBL
    is also computed as the difference between screen height (e.g., 1024 at a
    display resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels) and the highest scanline value
    encountered during the 50 refresh cycles.

This measurement is used to cross-check the results of the synchronization tests
(see ‘help SyncTrouble’) and the value provided by the operating system to
make the sync tests and display calibration as robust as possible, even
if the operating system reports bogus values like 0 Hz, which can happen
on MacOS-X and Windows with some flat panels.

  1. Highly accurate and robust stimulus onset timestamps in Screen(‘Flip’).

In normal operation, the Screen(‘Flip’) command, after issuing a buffer-swap
request to the gfx-hardware, pauses execution until the operating system
signals swap-completion in sync with vertical retrace. Then it takes a high-
precision system timestamp. Due to the scheduling jitter present in any
operating system, sometimes the execution of Psychtoolbox is resumed only after
some random multi-millisecond delay has passed after buffer-swap, so the
stimulus onset timestamp can be possibly off by multiple milliseconds from
the real stimulus onset time. This is unwanted timing noise, especially if
the time stamp is to be used for either computing stimulus onset time for
future stimuli, or for synchronizing Psychtoolbox execution with other
stimulus generators or acquisition hardware.

On Microsoft Windows 2000 and later, Beamposition timestamping is fully

On GNU/Linux, timing precision even in non-realtime scheduling mode is
far superior to all other operating systems, yielding a timing jitter of
less than 100 microseconds under normal operating conditions. For special
needs, there exist multiple methods of improving timing down to
microsecond level, although some of time require some advanced
programming skills. If Psychtoolbox runs on any recent AMD/ATI, or NVidia
graphics card, it will utilize beamposition queries for even better
timing precision. If your Linux system uses an open-source graphics
driver for NVidia (“nouveau”), AMD/ATI (“radeon”) or Intel GPU’s, as well
as on various embedded GPU’s (Smartphones and Tablets, embedded systems
etc.), Linux itself has a built-in high precision timestamping facility
which is even more robust and precise than Psychtoolbox beamposition

On MacOSX we use beamposition queries to improve accuracy of our timestamps
with the help of the PsychtoolboxKernelDriver (see “help PsychtoolboxKernelDriver”)
on cards from AMD and NVidia. On Intel graphics cards, beamposition time-
stamping doesn’t work by default. An alternative mechanism, based on vblank
timestamps can be enabled by setting Screen(‘Preference’,’VBLTimestampingmode’, 1);
This is implemented at acceptable reliability and precision on OS/X 10.6,
and will be used if the beamposition mechanism malfunctions or is unavailable.
On 10.7 and later the rather unreliable and sometimes unstable CoreVideo
timestamping can be enabled, at the risk of applications crashes and wrong
results on some setups. We always strongly recommend installing the
PsychtoolboxKernelDriver for best results. Intel graphics cards on MacOSX
are problematic: Our PsychtoolboxkernelDriver can’t handle them without the
severe danger of causing a hard system crash, so don’t use a Intel graphics
card if you need high precision visual stimulus onset timestamps or timing.

This is how beamposition queries are used:

When taking the system timestamp, we also query the current rasterbeam
position. From the known height of the display (in scanlines, including
height of VBL), and the known refresh interval of our display, we can
translate the current beam position into “elapsed time since start of VBL
== elapsed time since double buffer swap”. By subtracting this elapsed
time value from our system timestamp, we get a corrected timestamp - the
real system time of double buffer swap == start of VBL == aka stimulus
onset. This allows for very accurate timestamps, despite possible
non-deterministic multi-millisecond timing jitter. Psychtoolbox goes
through great pains during startup to double-check that all required
calibration values and mechanisms are accurate and working properly. You
can assess the accuracy of all returned timestamps by use of the script
VBLSyncTest. A visual correctness test is provided by
PerceptualVBLSyncTest. PTB also performs continuous runtime checking to
detect possible problems caused by defective graphics card drivers.

In case that beamposition queries should not work properly or are not
supported, PTB will use different fallback strategies:

On Microsoft Windows, only a normal - possibly noisy - timestamp is taken.

On MacOSX by default noisy timestamps are taken.
On MacOSX, if you set Screen(‘Preference’,’VBLTimestampingmode’, 1);
PTB tries to use CoreVideo CVDisplayLink timestamps, and uses their
values for timestamping the time of buffer- swap. The robustness,
precision and correctness of CVDisplayLink timestamps is not that great
on 10.7 and later, therefore this fallback mechanism may be removed in a
future PTB release. If these queries should fail as well, PTB falls back
to pure timestamping without any correction.

To get best precision and reliability on OSX 10.7 and later we strongly
recommend you install the PsychtoolboxKernelDriver and use a NVidia or
AMD graphics card, not an Intel graphics card.

On Linux, built-in OpenML timestamping has the highest priority,
robustness and precision and is available on the open-source graphics
drivers (intel, radeon, nouveau). Should that functionality be missing,
because you installed the proprietary graphics drivers, beamposition
timestamping is used on NVidia and AMD/ATI with the proprietary graphics
drivers, followed by the equivalent of kernel-level vbl timestamping
should that fail as well for some reason, followed by uncorrected

The behaviour of PTB can be controlled by the command:
Screen(‘Preference’, ‘VBLTimestampingMode’, mode); where mode can be one of the

-1 = Disable all cleverness, take noisy timestamps. This is the behaviour
you’d get from any other psychophysics toolkit, as far as we know.

0 = Disable CoreVideo/kernel fallback method (OSX and Linux), use
either beamposition stamps or noisy stamps if beamposition is
unavailable. This is the effective default setting on OSX and Windows.

1 = Use beamposition. Should it fail, switch to use of kernel-level/CoreVideo
timestamps. If that fails as well or is unavailable, use noisy

2 = Use beamposition, but cross-check with kernel-level/CoreVideo timestamps.
Use noisy stamps if beamposition mode fails. This is for the paranoid
to check proper functioning.

3 = Always use kernel-level/CoreVideo timestamping, fall back to noisy
stamps if it fails.

4 = Use OpenML OML_sync_control extension for high-precision timestamping
on supported system configuration, fall back on beamposition queries
if the OpenML mechanism is unavailable. OpenML timestamping is
currently a Linux only feature on the free open-source graphics
drivers. This is the default on Linux and Windows.

The effective default on OS-X and Windows is “0”, and “4” on Linux.

If the beamposition query test fails, you will see some warning message
about “SYNCHRONIZATION TROUBLE” in the Matlab/Octave command window or
other error messages, as diagnostics is performed at various stages of
setup and operation.

There are multiple possible causes for failure:

  1. Running digital displays like flat panels or projectors at non-native
    resolution, ie., anything other than their rated maximum resolution, or
    using display rotation by 90/180/270 degrees, e.g., putting the display
    from landscape into portrait orientation. This will violate various
    assumptions our timestamping code makes and introduce interference of the
    graphics driver with visual stimulus onset timing. If you want to use
    your panel at a non-native resolution or orientation, leave it set at its
    native maximum settings and orientation and then use the panelfitter and
    display rotation functions of PsychImaging(). See the demo
    PanelFitterDemo.m and its “help PanelFitterDemo” for further explanation
    on how to use the panelfitter.

  2. System overload: Too many other applications are running in parallel
    to Psychtoolbox, introducing severe timing noise into the calibration and
    test loop. See ‘help SyncTrouble’ on what to do. This happens rather

  3. Driver bug: Not much you can do, except submit a bug report to Apple
    or Microsoft for your specific hardware + software setup. This is by far
    the most common cause of failure. Psychtoolbox tries to enable
    work-arounds for some common problems if possible. Usually you should
    update your graphics card driver to see if that resolves the problems.

Note: As of Spring/Summer 2008, many graphics cards + driver combos from
ATI and NVidia on WindowsXP have bugs which cause beamposition queries to
fail in a peculiar way. If PTB detects that failure case, it will enable
some workaround to keep the mechanism going at slightly reduced accuracy:
Timestamps will still be mostly jitter-free and consistent, so they are
fully useable for timestamping, timing checks and as a basis for timed
stimulus presentation and animation. However, all returned timestamps
will contain a constant bias wrt. the real stimulus onset time of
somewhere between 20 microseconds and 1.5 milliseconds, depending on your
display settings, because Psychtoolbox can’t determine the total height
of your display in scanlines (including the invisible VBL interval)
anymore. Exact height is important for spot-on timestamps. Psychtoolbox
uses some safe, conservative value for its internal computations, so
results will be consistent and useable, but contain a small constant

In some rare cases, PTB’s automatic test fails to detect the bug and
doesn’t enable the workaround by itself. You can manually enable the
workaround if you want by adding the setting 4096
(kPsychUseBeampositionQueryWorkaround) to the value x passed via:
Screen(‘Preference’, ‘ConserveVRAM’, x);

Just insert this command at the top of your scripts before any other
Screen() commands. ‘x’ must be at least 4096 or the sum of 4096 and any
other values you may want to pass with that command. See “help
ConserveVRAMSettings” for other workarounds that you can enable manually
if needed.

If you want to get rid of that small offset, e.g., because you need to
synchronize with other modalities or stimulation/recording equipment at
sub-millisecond precisison, then you can try to figure out the real
height of the display yourself and tell Psychtoolbox about the true value
before calling Screen(‘OpenWindow’).

Once you know the real height, e.g., VTOTAL, you’d call this function:
Screen(‘Preference’, ‘VBLEndlineOverride’, VTOTAL);

How to find out about VTOTAL? One way is to search the display control
panel on Windows for some area with “Advanced Timing” or “Custom Timing”
settings. The shareware utility “PowerStrip” (
also allows to change and display these parameters in the Display
Profiles -> Configure -> Advanced Timing -> Vertical Geometry -> “Total”

Accuracy of beamposition method:

Cross-checking of beamposition timestamps and kernel-level timestamps on
a single display PowerPC G5 1.6 Ghz under OS-X 10.4.8 with NVidia
GeforceFX-5200 showed an accuracy of beamposition timestamping of better
than 100 microseconds, with a maximum deviation between the different
methods of less than 200 microseconds.

Initial checking on two Window PC’s (Dell Inspiron 8000 Laptop, Geforce
2Go, Windows 2000, and some 3.2 Ghz Pentium-4 with NVidia Geforce 7800
GTX) shows a precision of about 30 microseconds. Multiple users performed
similar testing procedures on their setups and confirmed the high
accuracy and reliability for various MacOSX and Windows setups.

The results of systematic studies can be found in the PsychDocumentation/
subfolder in the file ECVP2010Poster_VisualTimingPrecision.pdf. They
confirm the robustness and high precision of beamposition timestamping
and especially of Linux’s builtin timestamping on a variety of tested
hardware + operating system combinations in various system
configurations. The pdf also provides further tips for precise visual
onset timing.

Also check the FAQ section of for latest

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