Whether you're in the market for a new TV or just keeping tabs on the industry, you've probably heard of HDR—short for High Dynamic Range. HDR has become the buzzword du jour in the TV world, promising enhanced picture quality that captures the full range of shadows and highlights that we see in the real world.
HDR addresses a fundamental problem with most TVs on the market: their limited range of brightness. While many TVs can produce deep shadows, they can only get so bright. That makes it impossible to properly recreate a scene, even if the camera was able to capture it all.
High Dynamic Range content takes advantage of a modern TV's ability to selectively darken and brighten parts of the screen, making for a dynamic presentation that comes much closer to recreating everything your eyes would've seen.
There are currently two initiatives to bring HDR home: the "open" (open-source) HDR standard, and the "closed" (proprietary) Dolby Vision standard. Thus far, the open standard seems far more popular. Many HDR-compatible TVs have passed through our labs this year, but no Dolby Vision sets were available until very recently.
But despite slower adoption by TV manufacturers, Dolby Vision might (eventually) be the quickest path to viewing HDR content in your home.
It should come as no surprise that a proprietary format like Dolby Vision lacks the widespread adoption of open HDR—you could argue it's a lot like iOS versus Android, in terms of hardware compatibility.
But Dolby, like Apple, brings a lot of muscle to the table. On top of partnerships with Warner Bros., Vizio, Netflix, and Vudu, Dolby intends to engineer an end-to-end system to maintain HDR standards from content capture to delivery, rather than scaling "standard dynamic range" content up to HDR standards after the fact.
To start with, while the open HDR standard only applies to one step in the process of bringing HDR content to your screen (it only calls for a TV to be able to interpret an HDR signal—unless it's one of the "HDR Premium" certified sets), Dolby is already working with content creators to master Dolby Vision content. To that end Dolby has set specific performance thresholds that apply across the board, whether a movie is headed to your home theater or to your local cinema.
Specifically, Dolby is setting a brightness ceiling of 4,000 nits, an incredibly bright level that sounds like it would be uncomfortable to actually watch. To put that number in perspective, most movie theaters peak around 120 nits, while your average flagship smartphone can sometimes top 500. For a TV to be Dolby Vision–certified, it must achieve a minimum threshold of about 800 nits peak brightness—still very high, but much more reasonable.
In short, Dolby Vision intends to make you wince and shield your eyes during certain scenes. Their argument is simple: It happens in real life, so why not on the screen? There are even rumors of one Dolby engineer who wears sunglasses while mastering content.
At this point, many of you are probably asking, "Why do we need TVs to be so bright? Mine looks just fine." It's a legitimate question. The answer seems to be that content creators and TV manufacturers are pushing boundaries because they can, to the point that your eyes become the limiting factor.
To that end, Dolby has ventured into uncharted territory in terms of performance discussion. Moving away from the traditional models of color space, the company—alongside picture experts from SpectraCal—have coined the term "color volume," which takes the brightness/luminance of colors into account alongside the usual hue/saturation considerations.
The biggest hurdle for HDR (as it was for 3D, curved screens, and 4K) is convincing consumers that it's something they actually need. Every year, legitimate improvements to TV performance are obscured by confusing marketing jargon and often met with skepticism.
I spoke with Vizio's Mike Wood about the difficulty of getting the impact of Dolby Vision across to consumers who couldn't see it. How do you show off an all-around improvement to display performance to consumers who don't have HDR-compatible equipment? "They're seeing HDR TVs and HDR content on standard rec.709 monitors," Wood lamented.
To provide a more accurate preview, Dolby has opened up eight "Dolby Cinemas" in the United States, using laser projection technology to create a big-screen Dolby Vision experience that consumers can check out before investing thousands in a brand-new TV. Dolby also claims that seven major Hollywood studios are on board to create and supply Dolby Vision–graded content to cinemas and streaming providers.
As a format, HDR is still very much in its toddler stage, but it's much closer to fruition now than a couple of years ago. Even so, the format will need to be adopted by more TV manufacturers if it really wants to see widespread adoption. That presents a whole new set of problems.
According to the seminar I attended, Dolby Vision's strict performance requirements demand certain criteria be met. If you're talking about an LED TV, it absolutely needs a "full-array local dimming" backlight—no edge-lit TVs will do. Likewise, emissive displays like plasma and newer OLEDs are likely to struggle, since they can't get as bright as LEDs.
Quantum dot color will likely become an eventual necessity for the color space requirements, as well as quad- or even hexa-core processors to plow through all of the Dolby Vision metadata.
This is the main difference between the "open" HDR and "closed" Dolby Vision standards: the latter simply has more stringent performance requirements, which means it's yet to be adopted by as many TV manufacturers as the open HDR10 format. It's a harder target to hit, but arguably shows off HDR's best qualities in a more impressive fashion.
Unfortunately, the rivalry between the formats is a roadblock for the creation of HDR content. It forces streaming providers to pick sides, and will undoubtedly confuse the heck out of consumers. I suppose it wouldn't be a high-tech breakthrough without a format war, though.
At this point, it's impossible to say which side will triumph, but one thing's for sure: High Dynamic Range, in any guise, blows away the old standard.