CES: High Dynamic Range Takes Off; Challenges Ahead

Samsung SUHD TV  - H 2016
Courtesy of Samsung

High dynamic range (HDR) looks like its on its way to becoming ubiquitous with major sets makers including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, TCL and others.

Ultimately, the question is, will HDR be adopted by U.S. consumers? But in the meantime, there are a lot of open questions and debate about unresolved issues that will have impact on Hollywood studios, broadcasters and technology manufacturers.

For the uninitiated, HDR is effectively the ability to reproduce a wider range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks in an image. It has a lot of support in Hollywood, whose technology community generally agrees that the new television technology creates a more noticeable difference to the consumer compared with adding Ultra HD 4K resolution alone.

Sweeping technological change rarely arrives quickly or easily — just look at the transition to HD. For HDR, there are a lot of moving parts in areas including content creation, distribution and display. So even as consumer electronics manufacturers launched their HDR displays this week at CES, there’s still no consensus on issues including how to deliver native HDR images through live broadcasting.

This year, HDR was one of CES' buzziest topics as major set makers unwrapped Ultra HD 4K TVs. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to communicate the HDR message to the consumer.

Some of the biggest news in HDR this week was that the UHD Alliance — a coalition of roughly 35 companies including Hollywood studios, content distributors, technology companies and consumer electronics manufacturers — finished an agreed technical specification for a "premium" Ultra HD home experience and unveiled a consumer-facing logo to identify supported displays and content. Aimed at reducing consumer confusion, several manufacturers including LG, Panasonic and Samsung announced that they would display the logo on products that meet the UHDA parameters.

The spec was completed in one year since the formation of the UHDA. And, the group's president — 20th Century Fox technology officer Hanno Basse — received a round of applause for leading the effort during a panel at CES.

Meanwhile several flavors of HDR have already entered the consumer market —including the Ultra HD Blu-Ray format (which is also referred to as HDR 10) and Dolby’s proprietary Dolby Vision format (which is supported in UHD Blu-Ray) — and that has some worried.

"There’s the potential that the studios will have to create multiple masters [amounting to extra time and cost]," SMPTE director of standards (and former director of production technology at Disney) Howard Lukk told The Hollywood Reporter. "It won’t be like HD DVD versus Blu-Ray, but I think the content creators may feel the pain if they have to make the content look good across different HDR formats and formats that have to also be able to be played in standard HD."

So far, native HDR content is available via digital download and now via the new Ultra HD Blu-Ray format. Chris Fetner, Netflix’s director of media engineering and partnerships, confirmed that Netflix would support multiple flavors of HDR, including Dolby Vision when it begins to offer HDR during 2016, but by providing whatever format the studios support.

On the display side, several manufacturers such as LG are supporting both an open HDR standard in addition to Dolby Vision in a single display. "HDR is critical for us," LG's senior vp Nandhu Nahdhakumar told THR. "There are multiple HDR formats; we'll support the ones most widely adopted."

As first reported by THR last spring, 20th Century Fox said it would make versions of all of its new movies in a non-proprietary flavor of Ultra HD 4K with HDR for home entertainment. At CES, Universal and MGM confirmed that they plan to release select titles in Dolby Vision, joining previously announced Sony and Warner Bros. (though none said they would exclusively support Dolby Vision). Disney has not yet announced its HDR home entertainment plans, but has already released a number of theatrical motion pictures for early Dolby Vision-supported movie theaters (Dolby Vision was introduced as a format for cinema, as well as the home); that included Star Wars: the Force Awakens.

One of the most contentious HDR issues is how to handle live broadcasting (which goes hand in hand with 4K discussions). While standards are being discussed, two HDR proposals are already being debated: Generally speaking, one has backers including Dolby, the other with backers including the BBC. Technicolor and Philips are also both working on a distribution system, and at CES they announced that they were joining forces on their similar efforts.