Eye diagrams are a quick, visual means to quickly identify whether there are any signal integrity issues before moving on to more refined analysis. Eye diagrams help with the effective analysis of serial data, and offer both qualitative and quantitative insight regarding the data communications signal path itself and what might be affecting signal integrity.
Circuit designs that get to prototype stage may have been simulated prior to testing a PCB prototype. However, every design gets bench-tested before going on to higher volume production. In developing and interfacing to high speed serial communications such as USB, you will want to use an oscilloscope to troubleshoot and analyze serial data. Viewing eye diagrams can help with finding crosstalk, electromagnetic interference (EMI), signal loss and other phenomena that affect signal integrity. The term “eye” refers to the fact that the pattern on the oscilloscope looks like an eye. The bigger the opening of the “eye,” the better, in terms of signal to noise ratio. The general amount of jitter can be seen in the crossing.
An eye diagram is a pattern shown on an oscilloscope that depicts a fuller view of what a digital signal stream looks like from a more holistic viewpoint, one could say. What’s actually happening is that the oscilloscope is receiving, or sampling, a digital signal (a stream of step functions that represent 0s and 1s in varying patterns.) The oscilloscope samples little chunks of the received signal and displays them all, superimposed, on the screen. The result looks like an eye on the oscilloscope screen. The scope accumulates the chunks and displays the cumulative effect of the stream of 0s and 1s (step functions) on the screen. Every bit pattern it captures is superimposed on the oscilloscope’s screen.
The purpose of the eye diagram is to witness at a glance the health of the signal integrity. You can easily see the noise margins of the data signal with an eye diagram. Noise margin refers to the amount by which the signal for 0 or 1 exceeds ideal boundaries but is still within an acceptable range. The unit interval or bit period of an eye diagram is defined by the data clock. As mentioned above, the eye diagram displays all of the values, which are in variable positions due to noise or other factors, that a digital signal takes on during a bit period. Noise and other factors can make the digital signal deviate from a train of perfect step functions in a stream of 0s and 1s, and this is cumulatively displayed in aggregate in the eye diagram. A closed eye indicates a noisy, unpredictable signal.
Eye diagrams are great for a quick high level diagnostic, but they do not make good diagnostic tools beyond telling you if it looks good…or not. The performance of the digital signal is shown in aggregate, which makes it difficult to diagnose which edge is associated with a specific artifact. Older oscilloscopes show the eye diagram in one color. Modern oscilloscopes help with diagnostics somewhat by at least showing signals in different colors corresponding to frequency and voltage level on a per pixel basis.