It is as stunning as the shift from SD to HD

NAB 2015 has come and gone. There were many expected announcements and as usual, there were a few surprises. There is one concept that really excited me and it was High Dynamic Range in video and film.

High Dynamic Range (known as HDR)made its NAB debut this year, but you had to look really close to find it. Dolby and Sony were both showing HDR monitors on the show floor, but there was no pomp and circumstance for it. The HDR monitors were just subtly there on the show floor. All other showings of HDR were done in closed door
whisper suites. Let’s talk about what HDR is and what it means to you.

Over the past half-decade manufacturers have been in a pixel arms race trying to “out K” each other. One manufacturer has 4K, then another will have 8K and then the next manufacturer will claim they won’t even let pixel count constrain them whatsoever. But all this time, no one has publicly explored the possibility of making the existing pixels more vibrant, lifelike and beautiful. It seems that pixels are now being measured in quality and not quantity.

Support for 4K has turned out to be slow to be accepted. This is because the high bandwidth that 4K will need is expensive to roll out for many post production environments and then there are even less consumers with 4K televisions to even experience what 4K brings. So because people aren’t quickly running out and buying 4K televisions, the post production facilities are in no rush in invest in the technology to bring it to consumers. Consumers are also afraid to have their televisions fall into the two year life cycle that their cell phones now reside in. Consumers are skeptical that they get their 4K television. In just five years in the year 2020, Japanese broadcasters NHK will broadcast the Olympic Games in 8K. So when people hear that 8K is on the horizon, it makes them skeptical to even jump to 4K. All of this television upgrading for differences that most people don’t notice. The shift from SD to HD is much more impressive than the jump from HD to 4K.

You may ask yourself, “Doesn’t my new LED HD TV have this already? The screen looks stunning!” This answer is no. This is because today’s standards are grandfathered from older CRT technology. Even though we have emerged to flat panel HD televisions, CRT limitations have come with them. The displays have become much more elegant and the pixel counts have gone through the roof, but the actual color space has not changed at all.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) screens will raise the level of contrast and color space. It will raise the color levels and constraints that today’s cameras and television screens have to make things look more lifelike and match what your eyes do and not what your acquisition and monitoring hardware does.

This will make televisions look more like windows than screens. No matter how big a current screen is, you know you are looking at a screen. When you see an HDR monitor with a program that was either shot or upgraded to HDR, you can see the difference and it is as stunning as the shift from SD to HD. The brightness is around twenty times the highest limitations of today’s brightness and color space (which is now being referred to as Standard Dynamic Range or “SDR”).

What are the things you will immediately notice when looking at HDR footage and monitors? If you look at footage that is shot indoors and there is a bright window you will see just a wash a white light coming through with no detail at all. This is because current technology can’t handle the luminance coming in through the window. It can ruin your shot or force you to change the shot you are looking to shoot. With HDR footage and monitoring, that phenomenon will become a thing of the past. Conversely, when you look at dark footage, you will see much more detail in the imaging.

The emergence of HDR technology will not eliminate the 4K movement that manufacturers are pushing towards consumers, it just means that they will add the HDR technology to the 4K movement. It’s not to say that there is no value in 4K, and manufacturers will be very careful to not back peddle on what they have been pushing so aggressively. These technologies will just be pushed alongside one another in the future.

Although you will see a difference when you plug into your current cable hardware, the real difference will come when hardware and streaming services formally support HDR technology. Blu-ray players that support HDR will be released later this year, and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will support HDR later this year. You will also see movie theaters pushing HDR as well as an incentive to get people back into movie theaters.

Photographers have been using HDR modes in shooting for a couple of years now and the technology is now even trickling down to the cell phone industry. The Samsung S6 features HDR shooting modes on its camera today. It will be great to see this technology come to the people and in motion picture and television industries and most important, be able to experience the beauty that it brings.

The only “gotcha” with HDR today is that there is no standard of what the color space is and it will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. There is no standard that everyone must adhere to like in the older CRT technology that has its hard limitations. All of this is still in its infancy and should be very interesting to watch how it all explodes over the next year.

Steve McGrath is a Broadcast Sales Engineer for HB Communications. He has worked with NBC, ABC, CBS, NESN, NECN, Fox, ESPN, Pentagon, Powderhouse and many others. You can reach him at Steve. McGrath@HBCommunications.com. Learn more, visit www.HBCommunications.com.