Thursday, June 7, 2018

Observations on trackpoint input data

This time we talk trackpoints. Or pointing sticks, or whatever else you want to call that thing between the GHB keys. If you don't have one and you've never seen one, prepare to be amazed. [1]

Trackpoints are tiny joysticks that react to pressure [2], convert that pressure into relative x/y events and pass that on to whoever is interested in it. The harder you push, the higher the deltas. This is where the simple and obvious stops and it gets difficult. But then again, if it was that easy I wouldn't write this post, you wouldn't have anything to read, so somehow everyone wins. Whoop-dee-doo.

All the data and measurements below refer to my trackpoint, a Lenovo T440s. It may not apply to any other trackpoints, including those on on different laptop models or even on the same laptop model with different firmware versions. I've written the below with a lot of cringing and handwringing. I want to write data that is irrefutable, but the universe is against me and what the universe wants, the universe gets. Approximately every second sentence below has a footnote of "actual results may vary". Feel free to re-create the data on your device though.

Measuring trackpoint range is highly subjective, so you'll have to trust me when I describe how specific speeds/pressure ranges feel. There are three ranges of pressure on my trackpoint (sort-of):

  • Pressure range one: When resting the finger on the trackpoint I don't really need to apply noticable pressure to make the trackpoint send events. Just moving the finger on the trackpoint makes it send events, albeit sporadically.
  • Pressure range two: Going beyond range one requires applying real pressure and feels to me like we're getting into RSI territory. Not a problem for short periods, but definitely not something I'd want all the time. It's the pressure I'd use to cross the screen.
  • Pressure range three: I have to push hard. I definitely wouldn't want to do this during everyday interaction and it just feels wrong anyway. This pressure range is for testing maximum deltas, not one you would want to use otherwise.
The first/second range are easier delineated than the second/third range because going from almost no pressure to some real pressure is easy. Going from some pressure to too much pressure is more blurry, there is some overlap between second and third range. Either way, keep these ranges in mind though as I'll be using them in the explanations below.

Ok, so with the physical conditions explained, let's look at what we have to worry about in software:

  • It is impossible to provide a constant input to a trackpoint if you're a puny human. Without a robotic setup you just cannot apply constant pressure so any measurements have some error. You also get to enjoy a feedback loop - pressure influences pointer motion but that pointer motion influences how much pressure you inadvertently apply. This makes any comparison filled with errors. I don't know if I'm applying the same pressure on the two devices I'm testing, I don't know if a user I'm asking to test something uses constant/the same/the right pressure.
  • Not all trackpoints are created equal. Some trackpoints (mostly in Lenovos), have configurable sensibility - 256 levels of it. [3] So one trackpoint measured does not equal another trackpoint unless you keep track of the firmware-set sensibility. Those trackpoints also have other toggles. More importantly and AFAIK, this type of trackpoint also has a built-in acceleration curve. [4] Other trackpoints (ALPS) just have a fixed sensibility, I have no idea whether those have a built-in acceleration curve or merely have a linear-ish pressure->delta mappings.

    Due to some design choices we did years ago, systemd increases the sensitivity on some devices (the POINTINGSTICK_SENSITIVITY property). So even on a vanilla install, you can't actually rely on the trackpoint being set to the manufacturer default. This was in an attempt to make trackpoints behave more consistently, systemd had the hwdb and it seemed like the right place to put device-specific quirks. In hindsight, it was the wrong design choice.
  • Deltas are ... unreliable. At high sensitivity and high pressures you might get a sequence of [7, 7, 14, 8, 3, 7]. At lower pressure you get the deltas at seemingly random intervals. This could be because it's hard to keep exact constant pressure, it could be a hardware issue.
  • evdev has been the default driver for almost a decade and before that it was the mouse driver for a long time. So the kernel will "Divide 4 since trackpoint's speed is too fast" [sic] for some trackpoints. Or by 8. Or not at all. In other words, the kernel adjusts for what the default user space is and userspace is based on what the kernel provides. On the newest ALPS trackpoints the kernel has stopped doing any in-kernel scaling (good!) but that means that the deltas are out by a factor of 8 now.
  • Trackpoints don't always have the same pressure ranges for x/y. AFAICT the y range is usually a bit less than the x range on many or most trackpoints. A bit weird because the finger position would suggest that strong vertical pressure is easier to apply than sideways pressure.
  • (Some? All?) Trackpoints have built-in calibration procedures to find and set their own center-point. Without that you'll get the trackpoint eventually being ever so slightly off center over time, causing a mouse pointer that just wanders off the screen, possibly into the woods, without the obligatory red cape and basket full of whatever grandma eats when she's sick.

    So the calibration is required but can be triggered accidentally by the user: If you push with the same pressure into the same direction for 2-5 seconds (depending on $THINGS) you trigger the calibration procedure and the current position becomes the new center point. When you release, the cursor wanders off for a few seconds until the calibration sets things straight again. If you ever see the cursor buzz off in a fixed direction or walking backwards for a centimetre or two you've triggered that calibration. The only way to avoid this is to make sure the pointer acceleration mechanism allows you to reach any target within 2 seconds and/or never forces you to apply constant pressure for more than 2 seconds. Now there's a challenge...

Ok. If you've been paying attention instead of hoping for a TLDR that's more elusive than Godot, we're now aware of the various drawbacks of collecting data from a trackpoint. Let's go and look at data. Sensitivity is set to the kernel default of 128 in sysfs, the default reporting rate is 100Hz. All observations are YMMV and whatnot, especially the latter.

Trackpoint deltas are in integers but the dynamic range of delta values is tiny. You mostly get 1 or 2 and it requires quite a fair bit of pressure to get up to 5 or more. At low pressure you get deltas of 1, but less frequently. Visualised, the relationship between deltas and the interval between deltas is like this:

At low pressure, we get deltas of 1 but high intervals. As the pressure increases, the interval between events shrinks until at some point the interval between events matches the reporting rate (100Hz/10ms). Increasing the pressure further now increases the deltas while the intervals remain at the reporting rate. For example, here's an event sequence at low pressure:
E: 63796.187226 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +20ms
E: 63796.227912 0002 0001 0001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                1
E: 63796.227912 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +40ms
E: 63796.277549 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 63796.277549 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +50ms
E: 63796.436793 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 63796.436793 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +159ms
E: 63796.546114 0002 0001 0001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                1
E: 63796.546114 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +110ms
E: 63796.606765 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 63796.606765 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +60ms
E: 63796.786510 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 63796.786510 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +180ms
E: 63796.885943 0002 0001 0001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                1
E: 63796.885943 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +99ms
E: 63796.956703 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 63796.956703 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +71ms
This was me pressing lightly but with perceived constant pressure and the time stamps between events go from 20m to 180ms. Remember what I said above about unreliable deltas? Yeah, that.

Here's an event sequence from a trackpoint at a pressure that triggers almost constant reporting:

E: 72743.926045 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.926045 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.926045 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +10ms
E: 72743.939414 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.939414 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.939414 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +13ms
E: 72743.949159 0002 0000 -002 # EV_REL / REL_X                -2
E: 72743.949159 0002 0001 -002 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -2
E: 72743.949159 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +10ms
E: 72743.956340 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.956340 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.956340 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +7ms
E: 72743.978602 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.978602 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.978602 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +22ms
E: 72743.989368 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.989368 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.989368 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +11ms
E: 72743.999342 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72743.999342 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72743.999342 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +10ms
E: 72744.009154 0002 0000 -001 # EV_REL / REL_X                -1
E: 72744.009154 0002 0001 -001 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -1
E: 72744.009154 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +10ms
E: 72744.018965 0002 0000 -002 # EV_REL / REL_X                -2
E: 72744.018965 0002 0001 -003 # EV_REL / REL_Y                -3
E: 72744.018965 0000 0000 0000 # ------------ SYN_REPORT (0) ---------- +9ms
Note how there is an events in there with 22ms? Maintaining constant pressure is hard. You can re-create the above recordings by running evemu-record.

Pressing hard I get deltas up to maybe 5. That's staying within the second pressure range outlined above, I can force higher deltas but what's the point. So the dynamic range for deltas alone is terrible - we have a grand total of 5 values across the comfortable range.

Changing the sensitivity setting higher than the default will send higher deltas, including deltas greater than 1 before reaching the report rate. Setting it to lower than the default (does anyone do that?) sends smaller deltas. But doing so means changing the hardware properties, similar to how some gaming mice can switch dpi on the fly.

I leave you with a fun thought exercise in correlation vs. causation: your trackpoint uses PS/2, your touchpad probably uses PS/2. Your trackpoint has a reporting rate of 100Hz but when you touch the touchpad half the bandwidth is used by the touchpad. So your trackpoint sends half the events when you have the palm resting on the touchpad. From my observations, the deltas don't double in size. In other words, your trackpoint just slows down to roughly half the speed. I can reduce the reporting rate to approximately a third by putting two or more fingers onto the touchpad. Trackpoints haven't changed that much over the years but touchpads have. So the takeway is: 10 years ago touchpads were smaller and trackpoints were faster. Simply because you could use them without touching the touchpad. Mind blown (if true, measuring these things is hard...)

Well, that was fun, wasn't it. I'm glad you stayed that long, because I did and it'd feel lonely otherwise. In the next post I'll outline the pointer acceleration curves for trackpoints and what we're going to to about that. Besides despairing, that is.

[1] I doubt you will be, but it always pays to be prepared.
[2] In this post I'm using "pressure" here as side-ways pressure, not downwards pressure. Some trackpoints can handle downwards pressure and modify the acceleration based on it (or expect userland to do so).
[3] Not that this number is always correct, the Lenovo CompactKeyboard USB with Trackpoint has a default sensibility of 5 - any laptop trackpoint would be unusable at that low value (their default is 128).
[4] I honestly don't know this for sure but ages ago I found a hw spec document that actually detailed the process. Search for ""TrackPoint System Version 4.0 Engineering Specification", page 43 "2.6.2 DIGITAL TRANSFER FUNCTION"

1 comment:

André Brait said...

Wow. Just wow. I must say, this last round of analysis paid off really well. I was using libinput 1.10 on Fedora and I just upgraded to 1.11. Boy, what a difference. My touchpad is (dare I say) even better than it is on Windows. Slow movements are slow. Fast movements are fast. It's darn precise. It never misses a click.

Seriously, I'm impressed.