Last Wednesday, I was one of a group of journalists, engineers, and other technical types sitting in on a presentation about high dynamic range (HDR) TV. The location was Samsung’s sparkling-new product showcase in lower Manhattan at 837 Washington Street, and the presenters ranged from Samsung execs to well-known industry consultants, including Florian Friedrich of AVTOP, Steve Panosian of Samsung, Kevin Miller from ISF, Gerard Catapano from Samsung QA Labs, and Jason Hartlove of Nanosys.
THE NEXT BIG THING
You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about high dynamic range television by now. Along with Ultra HD resolution, HDR is the next big thing in TV displays, along with a new, wider color gamut, and eventually high frame rate video.
The transition away from mature Full HD (1920×1080) display technology to Ultra HD is happening much faster than most people expected. The costs of manufacturing LCD panels for televisions have absolutely plummeted in the past couple of years; so much that there is at best a $50 to $100 price delta between same-size 1080p and 2160p TV models.
In fact, we will start to see major TV brands dropping 1080p models altogether in larger screen sizes; possibly as soon as December. Sales experience is showing that customers take the upgrade to 4K more often than not when buying sets measuring 55 inches or larger, which is good news for retailers.
And that’s “qualified” good news, as worldwide sales of televisions have been in decline the past four years. The double-digit annual growth of Ultra HDTV sales are keeping things from getting worse and leading everyone in Japan, Korea, and China to focus on 4K and leave increasing numbers of sales of 1080p sets to the bargain brands.
But quadrupling the picture resolution by itself isn’t enough to turn the tide. Hence, we now have HDR, which can produce images containing peak brightness levels that are 10x higher than what we used to see on our old tube HDTVs. (Remember those?) And the colors represented on these displays are also much more saturated and intense, thanks to advancements in illumination technology.
Back in the early days of high definition television, we were largely in unknown territory. The first HDTV broadcasts used terrestrial television, and everyone needed to learn more about antennas and set-top boxes. Yet, seven years after the first HDTV broadcasts, every major network had produced some quantity of HDTV content.
There were missteps. Remember the surge in interest in 3D about a decade ago? It peaked in 2009 and featured competing 3D encoding and viewing standards, expensive glasses that often broke, complaints of headaches and nausea after extended, and even a campaign by the American Academy of Ophthalmologists to test for eye disorders; one based on the inability of certain people to see stereoscopic images correctly.
TIME TO CHANGE THINGS UP
HDR is different. You don’t need anything other than the naked eye to see it, and the premise of HDR is that you are watching images with peak whites and contrast ratios that follow closely what you see in real life (about 14 stops of light at any instant, from deep shadows to peak brightness).
What’s more, the colors you see rendered in HDR are much more vivid than what our current televisions can display as they’re working with a restricted color gamut. If you’ve seen bright neon or LED signs at night, marveled at a brilliant sunset, or gotten up close to tropical flowers in bloom, you know how hard it is to reproduce those intense colors on a television or computer monitor.
That’s all changed. We’re now standing at the threshold of an entirely different class of displays that are advanced by several orders of magnitude from the color TVs your parents or grandparents watched 50 years ago. It isn’t just about having more pixels – it’s about adding in all of the visual elements that replicate what you see every day.
Samsung is one of the first companies to get out of the gate with HDR televisions, and they’re using a new technology to light up the screen. Instead of conventional white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and arrays of color filters, the light source is made up of arrays of blue LEDs and matrices of green and red quantum dots (QDs). It’s not difficult to get intensely-saturated and bright blues from LEDs, but green and red provide more of a challenge. Hence; the QD backlight.
And they are bright. Samsung claims that their HDR TVs can achieve 1000 candelas per square meter (cd/m2) in a small area, which is quite the jump from the 300 cd/m2 or so that conventional white LED backlights can generate. Plus, the intense greens and reds generated by QDs have expanded the gamut of displayable colors considerably; closer to that of digital cinema projectors.
Now, the catch: How can we measure the performance of an HDR TV equipped with quantum dots? We can’t use the older test pattern generators and set-up Blu-ray discs as they’re limited to the current ITU Recommendation BT.709 color space and only use 8-bit color encoding. (HDR is based on a 10-bit color system.)
For that matter, we can’t even use the older display interfaces to connect a test pattern generator. For HDMI, the standard must be version 2.0a, and if we want to use DisplayPort, it must be version 1.4. It goes without saying that we must use an Ultra HD Blu-ray player if we want to source HDR test patterns from optical disc – and there is exactly one of those (Samsung) on the market, with another one coming from Panasonic this fall.
At the Samsung event, Friedrich and Miller explained how a new suite of test patterns has been prepared for Ultra HD Blu-ray to both evaluate and calibrate an HDR display. This test pattern UHD BD will be available from Samsung and can be used with any HDR TV, even the line-up of LG organic light-emitting diode (OLED) UHD sets that have come to market.
Steve Panosian talked about the lack of standards in TV performance and how there has to be a better way for consumers to compare the performance of one brand of HDR TVs against another. Although at this point in time, there are so few models available that it’s basically Samsung vs. LG, with companies like TCL and Hisense looking to get into the game this year.
Jason Hartlove from Nanosys made an appearance to talk about what’s happening with quantum dot science and what the next generation of HDR TVs might look like as the QD arrays in Ultra HDTVs start to resemble something like an OLED emitter array. And Chris Chinnock of Insight Media served as moderator for the day’s events, which culminated in hands-on sessions showing how to use the test pattern UHD Blu-ray to evaluate a set’s performance and calibrate it for optimal results.
The interesting thing about HDR TVs is that we really don’t need to provide much in the way of user adjustments anymore. HDR TVs use CEA 861.3 metadata, flowing through an HDMI or DisplayPort connection, to determine brightness levels, gamma, and color values. And with peak brightness values in the range of 800 – 1000 cd/m2, why would we need to have a “Dynamic” picture mode setting? (It’s already dynamic!)
Although I had seen this demonstration on two previous occasions, Insight Media and Samsung did an excellent job of explaining the challenges in both designing a set of test patterns to evaluate HDR TV performance and putting those patterns to actual use. I was reminded of those early days of HDTV: What signal format and connector do I need? What kind of antenna will pick up the broadcasts, and where do I aim it? What’s the difference between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p?
THE NEXT STEPS
My advice to everyone remains unchanged, however. If you are in the market for a new Ultra HDTV with HDR, I would hold off on purchasing it until at least January, if not next spring. By then, there should be several models supporting more than one HDR format (the baseline being HDR 10, but there are at least four others developed by Dolby, Technicolor, Samsung, and the BBC).
More importantly, your UHD set should support not only HDR content flowing through a display connection, but over an Internet connection. More and more content delivery is switching to video streaming as we move away from physical media. Plus, you’ll certainly spend less money on an HDR set if you can sit on your hands for a while, and there may even be a few more UHD Blu-ray player models to choose from six months from now, along with a lot more movies mastered in HDR.
Posted by Pete Putman, August 16, 2016 2:29 PM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.