Remember when 4k was the next big thing? It wasn’t that long ago really when we were all lusting after the new bigger, higher resolution TVs. It wasn’t just me was it? As cool as they were, and are, there’s something even better: HDR.
HDR stands for high dynamic range. According to EEtimes, it “effectively expands the range between the darkest and the brightest images a TV display can produce.” What that means is the images on the TV will look more realistic, more like the human eye sees reality when looking out a window, than even Ultra HD, or 4k looks now.
That’s because all 4k does is add more pixels per inch. And there’s a limit to how much we can see when the resolution gets that high. What I mean is that if you sat on a couch 2-3 meters away from your big screen TV and switched between 4k and full HD you probably wouldn’t see that much difference. Unless your screen is absolutely huge – wall size huge, not just big screen on the wall huge.
HDR is different
Rather than just cramming more pixels into the same space, HDR actually changes how the image looks. There’s more contrast, deeper colours, and it feels like something totally different than TV today.
Last year Amazon released its original series Mozart in the Jungle in HDR. But the HDR version could only be watched on certain Samsung model televisions. Netflix announced it will also be releasing HDR content. In an article on Business Finance News, Netflix CEO Neil Hunt says he believes that HDR is far superior to 4K “on a visual basis”. He promises to have 5% of their streaming content be HDR by 2017. By 2019 they may offer as much as 20% in HDR.
So it’s coming, but is it really that much of an improvement? Here’s a quote from Howard Lukk, a Vice President at Walt Disney Studios, “There’s a feeling in Hollywood, and even at the Walt Disney Studios, in order to change over the complete marketplace to a new format, we really need more than just pixels. Adding more dynamic range and more contrast really makes a big difference.”
If people who spend their lives making movies think it’s going to be that incredible, I can’t wait to see it.
Another format war
Much like various encoding options for streaming content, there are a variety of different options being developed for HDR. That’s why the only TVs that could play Amazon’s content when it was released was Samsung – the only ones that had the same HDR technology as Amazon. As of January, there were four companies that had announced they had a HDR format: Technicolor, Philips, Dolby and BBC. Philips and Technicolor have since announced they are merging their technology. The two main competitors now seem to be HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. But the BBC has proposed a device independent solution called Hybrid Log-Gamma.
Some manufacturers are including support for multiple formats. LG’s latest OLED Ultra HD HDR sets include HDR 10 and Dolby Vision. Dolby, for its part, is promising there will be support for its version on major platforms.
This will all eventually sort out. If TV manufacturers continue supporting all the options, there may be wider consumer adoption than if there is single support format. That’s if it follows the historical examples of previous formats (VHD and Blu-ray for example).
Amazon and Netflix both promise more HDR content in the future. But it will require more bandwidth than HD alone. Netflix has said their algorithms will set a preference for streaming HDR over 4k content if there are issues on a title that is in both. That is, they will reduce resolution before reducing the improved dynamic range with HDR.
As the content increases I’m sure the methods and algorithms to stream them will improve too. Let’s hope that the progress on encoding options improves too so we can all see these wonderful movies and TV series without going over our data limits, or suffering too much buffering.