Reading a VGA monitor's configuration data with I2C and a PocketBeagle

Have you ever wondered how your computer knows all the characteristics of your monitor— the supported resolutions, the model, and even the serial number? Most monitors use a system called DDC to communicate this information to the computer.1 This information is transmitted using the I2C communication protocol—a protocol also popular for connecting hobbyist devices. In this post, I look inside a VGA monitor cable, use a tiny PocketBeagle (a single-board computer in the BeagleBone family) to read the I2C data from an LCD monitor, and then analyze this data.

Inside a VGA cable. The cable is more complex than I expected, with multiple layers of shields. The green, red, white (sync) and blue wires are thicker and have their own shielding.

Inside a VGA cable. The cable is more complex than I expected, with multiple layers of shields. The green, red, white (sync) and blue wires are thicker and have their own shielding.

To connect to the monitor, I cut a VGA cable in half and figured out which wire goes to which pin.3 The wire (above) is constructed in an interesting way, more complicated than I expected. The red, green, blue and horizontal sync signals are transmitted over coaxial-like cables formed by wrapping a wire a spiral of thin copper wires for shielding.2 The remaining signals travel over thinner plain wires. Several strands of string form the structural center of the VGA cable, and the ten internal wires are wrapped in a foil shield and woven outer shield.

The VGA connector consists of 3 rows of 5 pins.
Pins are simply numbered left-to-right with 1 through 5 in the first row, 6-10 in the second, and 11-15 in the third.
(Click image for a closeup.)

The VGA connector consists of 3 rows of 5 pins. Pins are simply numbered left-to-right with 1 through 5 in the first row, 6-10 in the second, and 11-15 in the third. (Click image for a closeup.)

The photo above shows the male VGA connector on each end of the cable. The function assigned to each pin is shown in the table below. The I2C clock (SCL) and data (SDA) are the important pins for this project. The wire colors are not standardized; they refer to my VGA cable and may be different for a different cable.

PinFunctionWire color
1RedRed coax
2GreenGreen coax
3BlueBlue coax
4ReservedShield
5GroundBlack
6Red GroundShield
7Green GroundShield
8Blue GroundShield
95VYellow
10GroundWhite
11ReservedShield
12SDAGreen
13HSyncWhite coax
14VSyncBrown
15SCLRed

The 5 volt wire in the cable has a clever purpose. This wire allows the computer to power the EEPROM chip that provides the configuration data. Thus, the computer can query the display's characteristics even if the display is turned off or even unplugged from the wall.

Reading the configuration data

To read the data over I2C, I used the PocketBeagle, a tiny Linux computer that I had handy. (You could use a different system that supports I2C, such as the Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone or Arduino.) I simply connected the I2C clock (SCL), data (SDA) and ground wires from the VGA cable to the PocketBeagle's I2C pins as shown below.

Connecting a VGA cable to the PocketBeagle allows the configuration data to be read over I2C. The black wire is ground, the green wire is I2C data (SDA) and the red wire is I2C clock (SCL).

Connecting a VGA cable to the PocketBeagle allows the configuration data to be read over I2C. The black wire is ground, the green wire is I2C data (SDA) and the red wire is I2C clock (SCL).

Simple Linux commands let me access I2C. First, I probed the I2C bus to see what devices were present, using the i2cdetect command. (Many devices can be connected to an I2C bus, each assigned a different address.) The output below shows that devices 30, 37, 4a, 4b and 50 responded on I2C bus 1. Device 50 is the relevant I2C device, assigned to the configuration information. Device 37 is DDC/CI, allowing monitor settings to be controlled by the computer, but I'll ignore it for this post. Devices 30, 4a, and 4b are a mystery to me so leave a comment if you know what they are.

$ i2cdetect -y -r 1
     0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  a  b  c  d  e  f
00:          -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
10: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
20: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
30: 30 -- -- -- -- -- -- 37 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
40: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- 4a 4b -- -- -- --
50: 50 -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
60: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
70: -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Next, I used the i2cdump command to read 128 bytes from device 50's registers, providing the raw VGA information. The hex values are on the left and ASCII is on the right.

$ i2cdump -y -r 0-127 1 0x50 b
     0  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  a  b  c  d  e  f    0123456789abcdef
00: 00 ff ff ff ff ff ff 00 04 69 fa 22 01 01 01 01    ........?i?"????
10: 12 19 01 03 1e 30 1b 78 ea 3d 25 a3 59 51 a0 25    ?????0?x?=%?YQ?%
20: 0f 50 54 bf ef 00 71 4f 81 80 81 40 95 00 a9 40    ?PT??.qO???@?.?@
30: b3 00 d1 c0 01 01 02 3a 80 18 71 38 2d 40 58 2c    ?.?????:??q8-@X,
40: 45 00 dd 0c 11 00 00 1e 00 00 00 fd 00 32 4c 1e    E.???..?...?.2L?
50: 53 11 00 0a 20 20 20 20 20 20 00 00 00 fc 00 56    S?.?      ...?.V
60: 45 32 32 38 0a 20 20 20 20 20 20 20 00 00 00 ff    E228?       ....
70: 00 46 34 4c 4d 51 53 31 32 38 35 34 36 0a 00 bb    .F4LMQS128546?.?

Understanding the monitor's EDID data

The configuration data is encoded in the EDID (Extended Display Identification Data) format, so it's not immediately obvious what the data means. But the format is well-documented, so it's not too hard to figure out. For instance, the first 8 bytes 00 ff ff ff ff ff ff 00 are the header. The next two bytes 04 69 encode three 5-bit characters for the manufacturer ID, in this case "ACI" - Asus Computer International. (The data format uses a lot of annoying bit manipulations like these to make the data compact.) Near the end of the output, the ASCII strings "VE228" and "F4LMQS128546" are clearly visible; these are the monitor's model number and serial number.

I made a simple Python program to decode the data, giving the following results:

Header:
  Manufacturer: ACI
  Product code: 8954
  Week: 18
  Year: 2008
  Edid version 1, revision 3
  Analog input
  Levels: +0.7/-.03
  Blank-to-black setup (pedestal) expected
  Separate sync supported
  Composite sync supported
  Sync on green supported
  Horizontal screen size: 48cm
  Vertical screen size: 27cm
  Display gamma: 2.200
  DPMS standby supported
  DPMS suspend supported
  DPMS active-off supported
  Display type (analog): RGB color
  Preferred timing mode in descriptor block 1
Chromaticity coordinates:  r: (0.637, 0.351), g: (0.319, 0.626), b: (0.145, 0.061), w: (0.313, 0.329)
Established timings:
  720x400 @ 70 Hz
  640x480 @ 60 Hz
  640x480 @ 67 Hz
  640x480 @ 72 Hz
  640x480 @ 75 Hz
  800x600 @ 56 Hz
  800x600 @ 60 Hz
  800x600 @ 72 Hz
  800x600 @ 75 Hz
  832x624 @ 75 Hz
  1024x768 @ 60 Hz
  1024x768 @ 72 Hz
  1024x768 @ 75 Hz
  1280x1024 @ 75 Hz
Standard timing information:
  X res: 1152, aspect 4:3, Y res (derived): 864), vertical frequency: 75
  X res: 1280, aspect 5:4, Y res (derived): 1024), vertical frequency: 60
  X res: 1280, aspect 4:3, Y res (derived): 960), vertical frequency: 60
  X res: 1440, aspect 16:10, Y res (derived): 900), vertical frequency: 60
  X res: 1600, aspect 4:3, Y res (derived): 1200), vertical frequency: 60
  X res: 1680, aspect 16:10, Y res (derived): 1050), vertical frequency: 60
  X res: 1920, aspect 16:9, Y res (derived): 1080), vertical frequency: 60
Descriptor 1: Detailed timing descriptor:
  Pixel clock: 148500kHz
  Horizontal active pixels: 1920
  Horizontal blanking pixels: 280
  Vertical active lines: 1080
  Vertical blanking lines: 45
  Horizontal front porch pixels: 88
  Horizontal sync pulse pixels: 44
  Vertical front porch lines: 4
  Vertical sync pulse lines: 5
  Horizontal image size: 477mm
  Vertical image size: 268mm
  Horizontal border pixels: 0
  Vertical border lines: 0
  Digital separate sync
  VSync serration
  Positive horizontal sync polarity
Descriptor 2: Display range limits
  Minimum vertical field rate 50Hz
  Maximum vertical field rate 76Hz
  Minimum horizontal field rate 30Hz
  Maximum horizontal field rate 83Hz
  Maximum pixel clock rate: 170Mhz
  Default GTF
Descriptor 3: Display name VE228
Descriptor 4: Display serial number F4LMQS128546

As you can see, the EDID format crams a lot of configuration information into 128 bytes. The output starts off with some basic data about the monitor's characteristics and inputs. The VGA standard doesn't nail down as many things as you'd hope. For instance the sync signals can be provided on one wire (separate), two wires (composite), or on the green wire. The output above shows my monitor supports all three sync types.

The monitor then provides a long list of supported resolutions, which is how your computer knows what the monitor supports. The "detailed timing descriptor" provides more information on signal voltage levels and timings. The timing of VGA signals contains some strange features (e.g. blanking and "front porch") inherited from obsolete CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) displays. The values in the configuration provide the information necessary for the computer's graphics board to synthesize a proper VGA signal that the monitor can understand.

The CIE chromaticity coordinates provided by the monitor are interesting, but need a bit of background to understand. A CIE chromaticity diagram (below), shows all the colors in the real world. (Brightness is factored out, so grays and browns don't appear.) Individual wavelengths of light (i.e. the spectrum) curve around the outside of the diagram. The colors inside the curve are combinations of the pure spectral colors, with white in the middle.

CIE diagram showing the color gamut and white point of my monitor.

CIE diagram showing the color gamut and white point of my monitor.

A display, however, generates its colors by combining red, green, and blue. The result is that a display can only show the colors inside the triangle above with red, green, and blue at the corners. A display doesn't generate the light wavelengths necessary to display colors outside the triangle. Like most monitors, this monitor can only show a surprisingly small fraction of the possible colors. (A wide-gamut display uses different phosphors to expand the triangle and get more vivid colors.) The triangle vertices and white point4 in the diagram above come from the x,y chromaticity coordinates in the configuration data.

You might wonder how you can see the whole CIE diagram on your display if only the colors inside the triangle can be displayed. The answer is the diagram "cheats"—the colors are scaled to fit into RGB values, so you're not seeing the exact colors but just an approximate representation. If you look at the spectrum through a prism, for instance, the colors will be more intense than what you see in the CIE diagram.

Inside I2C

The I2C protocol (Inter-Integrated Circuit) was invented in 1982 by Philips Semiconductor to connect a CPU to peripheral chips inside televisions. It's now a popular protocol for many purposes, including connecting sensors, small LED displays, and other devices to microcontrollers. Many I2C products are available from Adafruit and Sparkfun for instance.

The I2C protocol provides a simple, medium-speed way to connect multiple devices on a bus using just two wires—one for a clock and one for data. I2C is a serial protocol, but it differs from serial protocols like RS-232 in a couple ways. First, I2C is synchronous (using a clock), unlike RS-232 which is asynchronous (no clock). Second, I2C is a bus and can connect dozens of devices, while RS-232 connects two devices.5

The oscilloscope trace below shows what an I2C communication with the monitor looks like on the wire. The top line (cyan) shows the clock. Note that the clock only runs while data is transmitted.) The yellow line is the binary data. At the bottom, the oscilloscope decoded the data (green). In this trace, register number 0x26 is being read from device 0x50. The I2C protocol is rather peculiar since a read is performed by doing a write followed by a read. That is, to read a byte, the master first does a write to the device of the desired register number: the master first sends 0x50 (the device ID) the write flag bit (indicated with "W:50"), and 0x26 (the register number, ASCII "&"). Then, the master does a read; it sends 0x50 and the read flag bit ("R:50"). The device responds with the value in the register, 0x71 (ASCII "q").6

I2C trace: clock (SCL) in cyan and data (SDA) in yellow. Green shows decoded data. Oscilloscope was set to 20µs/division and 2V/division.

I2C trace: clock (SCL) in cyan and data (SDA) in yellow. Green shows decoded data. Oscilloscope was set to 20µs/division and 2V/division.

Devices on the I2C bus can only pull a line low; pull-up resistors keeps the lines high by default.7 As a result, the traces above drop low sharply, but climb back up slowly.8 Even though the transitions look sloppy, the I2C bus worked fine. I couldn't find a source to tell me if VGA monitors included pull-up resistors, or if I needed to add them externally. However, I measured voltage on the lines coming from the monitor and everything worked without external resistors, so there must be pull-up resistors inside the monitor.

Conclusion

The VGA specification includes a data link that allows a computer to learn about a monitor and configure it appropriately. It is straightforward to read this configuration data using the I2C protocol and a board with an I2C port. While VGA is mostly obsolete now, the same data protocol is used with DVI and HDMI displays. My goal in reading the monitor's config data was so I could use the timing data in an FPGA to generate a VGA video signal. (That project is yet to come.) Follow me on Twitter or RSS to find out about my latest blog posts.

Notes and references

  1. DDC (Display Data Channel) is used by VGA, DVI and HDMI connections, which transmit the data over two I2C pins. The data it sends is in the EDID (Extended Display Identification Data) format. Everything changed with the DisplayPort interface. It transmits configuration data over a differential AUX channel using the DisplayID format, which extends EDID to supports newer features such as 3D displays. Thus, the techniques I describe in this article should work with DVI or HDMI interfaces, but won't work with DisplayPort. 

  2. Looking at other VGA cables on the web, most VGA cables don't have the fourth coax for horizontal sync that my cable does. So my cable seems a bit unusual. 

  3. Instead of cutting a VGA cable in half, I could have simply plugged a cable into a VGA connector, but that's less interesting. 

  4. The white point for my monitor matches a standard called D65

  5. For more information on I2C, good explanations are on SparkFun and Wikipedia

  6. I'm leaving out some of the complications of I2C. For example, the master generates the clock, but the device can do "clock stretching" by holding the clock low until it is ready. Also, the device sends an ACK bit after each request. The device address is 7 bits, while the data is 8 bits. See protocol documentation for details. 

  7. Using a pull-up resistor on the I2C bus avoids the risk of short circuits. If, alternatively, devices could actively pull the line high, it would be a problem if one device tried to pull a line high at the same time another pulled it low. 

  8. The oscilloscope traces show exponential R-C charging curves when the line is pulled high. This is due to the wire capacitance being charged through the pull-up resistor. The signals only reach about 3V, making them suitable for the PocketBeagle's 3.3V inputs. (If you try this with a different monitor, check the voltage levels to avoid damaging the PocketBeagle's inputs.) 

7 comments:

Jon Burgess said...

> Devices 30, 4a, and 4b are a mystery to me so leave a comment if you know what they are.

0x30 appears to be a paging register to allow access to more than 256 bytes of DDC data.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Display_Data_Channel#E-DDC

Erik Hess said...

I went through a similar adventure years ago with an old favorite monitor that refused to work right on a 2010 Mac Mini. Resolving the issue required dumping the EDID, doing some hex editing, then reflashing the EDID and was really educational. Probably would've been a great excuse to build one of these types of PocketBeagle/RPi projects!

Instead I had to rummage through my "historical hardware" bins to find an (apparently rare) VGA card that'd work with the i2c EDID dump executable I had found, a floppy drive, DOS boot disk, and more fun things to get it going. A bit less fun but it did the trick.

Found the article I used for the fix on the Wayback Machine. Was the first time I had ever taken a close look at the world of DCC, EDID and i2c.

Totally worth it though. Monitor's still going strong some 11 years after its manufacture. :)

Erik Hess said...

https://web.archive.org/web/20120212222900/https://byuu.org/articles/computing/edid

Dantali0n said...

Never knew that EDID was send over I2C and I had always thought vga did not support it. How interesting thanks for sharing.

Hernandi Krammes said...

Windows allows you to access direct i2c data through COM object, and to access the entire I2C mem of the display. A while ago I used it with Excel to get the data from all displays inside the network in the business I worked for, for inventory purposes. The harder part that time was to find lastest EDID specification. But I got it! Worked out nicely!

Anonymous said...

Fun stuff. I worked on the original monitors at IBM that supported DDC1 ...many years ago. The early units had a square box in series on the monitor cable. That is where the micro resided that spit out the DDC1 data stream.

Jecel Assumpção Jr said...

Before 1994 there was no I2C and the monitor indicated what kind it was by grounding or not three pins, as seen at the bottom of http://pinouts.ru/Video/VGA15_pinout.shtml