by Ryan Smith
From a technical level the DP Alt Mode specification is actually rather simple. USB Type-C – which immediately implies using/supporting USB 3.1 signaling – uses 4 lanes (pairs) of differential signaling for USB Superspeed data, which are split up in a 2-up/2-down configuration for full duplex communication. Through the Alt Mode specification, DP Alt Mode will then in turn be allowed to take over some of these lanes – one, two, or all four – and run DisplayPort signaling over them in place of USB Superspeed signaling. By doing so a Type-C cable is then able to carry native DisplayPort video alongside its other signals, and from a hardware standpoint this is little different than a native DisplayPort connector/cable pair.
From a hardware perspective this will be a simple mux. USB alternate modes do not encapsulate other protocols (ala Thunderbolt) but instead allocate lanes to those other signals as necessary, with muxes at either end handling the switching to determine what signals are on what lanes and where they need to come from or go. Internally USB handles this matter via the CC sense pins, which are responsible for determining cable orientation. Alongside determining orientation, these pins will also transmit a Standard IDentification (SID), which will be how devices negotiate which signals are supported and which signals to use. After negotiation, the devices at either end can then configure themselves to the appropriate number of lanes and pin orientation.
Along with utilizing USB lanes for DP lanes, the DP Alt Mode standard also includes provisions for reconfiguring the Type-C secondary bus (SBU) to carry the DisplayPort AUX channel. This half-duplex channel is normally used by DisplayPort devices to carry additional non-video data such as audio, EDID, HDCP, touchscreen data, MST topology data, and more. Somewhat perversely in this case, the AUX channel has even been used to carry USB data, which dutifully enough would still be supported here for backwards compatibility purposes.
Since the main DisplayPort lanes and AUX channel can be carried over Type-C, when utilized in this fashion Type-C is very close to becoming a superset of DisplayPort. In a full (4 lane) DisplayPort configuration, along with all of the regular DisplayPort features a Type-C cable also carries the standard USB 2.0 interface and USB power, which always coexist alongside alt mode. So even in these configurations Type-C allows dedicated high power and USB 2.0 functionality, something the DisplayPort physical layer itself is not capable of. And of course when using a less-than-full configuration, 2-3 of those lanes on the Type-C cable then can be left to running USB Superspeed signaling, allowing USB 3.1 data to be carried alongside the narrower DisplayPort signal.