DisplayPort: Hacking And Examples

So far, I’ve talked about why DisplayPort is the future, introduced the basics of how to work with it on the hacker level, took apart and tamed the DisplayPort altmode, and recently, went through the eDP (embedded DisplayPort) display technology. This time, I want to give you a project library to reference, so that your hacking goes as smoothly as possible – real-world examples of open-source DisplayPort boards, a few boards I’ve worked on, part numbers, and whatever other information you might need.

Even this wonderful build is not immune from wasting power on unnecessary video conversion

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that a non-zero amount of cyberdeck builders buy eDP screens with HDMI converter boards on Aliexpress, then connect them to SBCs using USB-C to HDMI adapters, or ignore the onboard eDP port; even this super cool Framework-based cyberdeck has done that! I get that it’s the simplest option, but I do believe that you ought to know how to improve it. The issue is that this double-conversion decreases the battery life significantly by burning two extra ASICs doing video conversion back and forth. Every hour of battery life matters in a cyberdeck, doubly so if it’s based on a low-power device already – you could easily cut your battery life in half if you’re not careful!

With these projects and references in your arsenal, my aim is that DisplayPort becomes way more comfortable for you to work with. Thankfully, there are quite a few projects to reference by now – let’s delve in.

Right out of the gate – are you looking for an SBC with DisplayPort support? The BoardDB website, a database of single-board computers, has a DisplayPort filter – click this link with the filter already enabled and browse through.

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DisplayPort: Taming The Altmode

The DisplayPort altmode is semi-proprietary, but it can absolutely be picked apart if we try. Last time, we found a cool appnote describing the DisplayPort altmode in detail, switched the FUSB302 into packet sniffing mode and got packet captures, learned about PD VDMs (vendor-defined messages), and successfully replayed the captured messages to switch a USB-C port into the DisplayPort altmode. Today, we will go through the seven messages that summon the DisplayPort altmode, implement them, and tie them all into a library – then, figure out the hardware we need to have DisplayPort work in the wild.

For a start, as you might have seen from the diagram, a single command can be either a request or a response. For instance, if you get a Discover Identity REQ (request), you reply to it with a Discover Identity ACK (response), adding your identity data to your response along the way. With some commands, the DP source will add some data for you to use; for most commands, your DP sink will have to provide information instead – and we’ll do just that, armed with the PDF provided and the packet captures.

We have seven commands we need to handle in order to get DisplayPort out of a compatible USB-C port – if you need a refresher on these commands, page 13 of the ST’s PDF on the DP altmode will show you the message sequence. These commands are: Discover Identity, Discover SVIDs, Discover Modes, Enter Mode, DP Status Update, DP Configure, and Attention. Out of these, the first four are already partially described in the base USB PD standard, the two DP commands afterwards are DisplayPort-altmode-specific but sufficiently described in the PDF we have, and the Attention command is from the base standard as well, mostly helpful for reporting state of the HPD pin. Let’s start with the first two! Continue reading “DisplayPort: Taming The Altmode”

DisplayPort: Tapping The Altmode

Really, the most modern implementation of DisplayPort is the USB-C DisplayPort altmode, synonymous with “video over USB-C”, and we’d miss out if I were to skip it. Incidentally, our last two articles about talking USB-PD have given a few people a cool new toy to play with – people have commented on the articles, reached out to me for debugging help, and I’ve even seen people build the FUSB302B into their projects! Hot on the heels of that achievement, let’s reach further and conquer one more USB-C feature – one that isn’t yet openly available for us to hack on, even though it deserves to be.

For our long-time readers, it’s no surprise to see mundane capabilities denied to hackers. By now, we all know that many laptops and phones let you get a DisplayPort connection out of a USB-C port. Given that the USB-C specifications are openly available, and we’ve previously implemented a PD sink using those specifications, you’d expect that we could do DisplayPort with the same ease. Yet, the DisplayPort altmode specification is behind a VESA membership paywall, with a hefty pricetag – a practice of theirs that has been widely criticized, counter to their purpose as a standards organization and having resulted in some of their standards failing.

Not to worry, however – we can easily find an assortment of PDFs giving a high-level overview and some details of the DisplayPort altmode, and here’s my favorite! I also have a device running MicroPython with a FUSB302 chip connected, and a few DisplayPort altmode devices of mine that I can disassemble. This, turns out, is more than enough for us to reverse-engineer our way into an open-source DisplayPort altmode library!

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DisplayPort: Under The Hood

Last time, we looked at all the things that make DisplayPort unique for its users. What about the things that make it unique for hackers? Let’s get into all the ways that DisplayPort can serve you on your modern tech wrangling adventures.

You Are Watching The AUX Channel

With DisplayPort, the I2C bus we’ve always seen come bundled with VGA, DVI and HDMI, is no more – it’s been replaced by the AUX bus. AUX is a 1 MHz bidirectional diffpair – just a bit too complex for a cheap logic analyzer, though, possibly, something you could wrangle with the RP2040’s PIOs. Hacking thoughts aside, it’s a transparent replacement for I2C, so that software doesn’t have to be rewritten – for instance, it usually does I2C device passthrough over AUX, so that EDID data can still be stored in a separate EEPROM chip on the monitor or eDP LCD panel.

AUX isn’t just a differential bus, it’s more pseudodifferential, like USB2 – for instance, AUX_P and AUX_N are used separately, with a combination of 1 MΩ and 100 kΩ pullups and pulldowns signaling different states of the physical connection – for instance, a pullup on AUX+ and a pulldown on AUX- means that an external device has been connected. If you’d like to learn which combination of resistors means what, you can find in the DisplayPort specification, which isn’t distributed openly but isn’t hard to come by, either.

Also, DisplayPort link training happens over AUX, and in order to facilitate that, a piece of DisplayPort controller’s external memory is usually exposed over the AUX channel, through a mechanism that’s called DPCD. If you dig a bit, using “DPCD” as the keyword, you can easily reach into the lower-level details of your DisplayPort connection. Some of the DPCD memory map is static, and some parts are FIFOs you can funnel data into, or out of. You can find a wide variety of documents online which describe the DPCD structure – for now, here’s a piece of Bash that works on Linux graphics drivers for AMD and Intel, and will show you you the first 16 bytes of DPCD:

# sudo dd if=/dev/drm_dp_aux0 bs=1 skip=256 count=16 |xxd
00000000: 0084 0000 0000 0000 0108 0000 0000 0000 ................

In particular, the 4th nibble (digit) here describes the amount of lanes for the DisplayPort link established – as you can see, my laptop uses a four-lane link. Also, the /dev/drm_dp_aux0 path might need to be adjusted for your device. In case you ever want to debug your DP link, having direct access to the DPCD memory space like this might help you quite a bit! For now, let’s move onto other practical aspects. Continue reading “DisplayPort: Under The Hood”

DisplayPort: A Better Video Interface

Over the years, we’ve seen a good number of interfaces used for computer monitors, TVs, LCD panels and other all-things-display purposes. We’ve lived through VGA and the large variety of analog interfaces that preceded it, then DVI, HDMI, and at some point, we’ve started getting devices with DisplayPort support. So you might think it’s more of the same. However, I’d like to tell you that you probably should pay more attention to DisplayPort – it’s an interface powerful in a way that we haven’t seen before.

By [Belkin+Abisys], CC BY-SA 3.0
The DisplayPort (shortened as DP) interface was explicitly designed to be a successor to VGA and DVI, originating from the VESA group – an organization created by multiple computer-display-related players in technology space, which has previously brought us a number of smaller-scale computer display standards like EDID, DDC and the well-known VESA mount. Nevertheless, despite the smaller scale of previous standards, DisplayPort has since become a hit in computer display space for a number of reasons, and is more ubiquitous than you might realize.

You could put it this way: DisplayPort has all the capabilities of interfaces like HDMI, but implemented in a better way, without legacy cruft, and with a number of features that take advantage of the DisplayPort’s sturdier architecture. As a result of this, DisplayPort isn’t just in external monitors, but also laptop internal displays, USB-C port display support, docking stations, and Thunderbolt of all flavors. If you own a display-capable docking station for your laptop, be it classic style multi-pin dock or USB-C, DisplayPort is highly likely to be involved, and even your smartphone might just support DisplayPort over USB-C these days. Continue reading “DisplayPort: A Better Video Interface”