4 May 2017

HDR content: Why you’re going to want it

Content creators and distributors are as excited about HDR as TV manufacturers are. But should you be paying attention, or is it just another marketing gimmick?

It’s easy to get cynical when you see TV manufacturers extolling the virtues of new terms and TLAs (three-letter acronyms) in their marketing materials and on the packaging of their devices. “HD-Ready” turned out to be 720p – which isn’t close to the 1920p resolution we’ve come to think of as “high definition” – and 3D turned out to be a feature no one really wants at home. But HDR (high dynamic range) is different … and you’re going to want it. You’ll still need special gear for it, but that doesn’t include annoying glasses or anything else you wear (or charge).

The ABCs of HDR

Imagine you’re sitting in a dimly lit room. Look out the window. You can see detail outside the window, where it’s bright, and inside, where it’s dim, simultaneously. But hold a smartphone camera up to the same scene and you’re either going to get the detail inside with the window blowing out to pure white, or the detail outside with the interior pitch black. That’s because camera sensors have a limited dynamic range – they can only capture a certain range of darkness and brightness.

HDR displays can show bright areas and dark ones simultaneously, bringing digital images and videos more in line with how we see the world. The idea for HDR originated in photography, where photographers would take an under-exposed image, a properly exposed image and an over-exposed image and stack them on top of one another, allowing them to get the optimal detail from the dark tones, the mid-tones and the bright areas, all in one composite image.

Mobile first?

For HDR to work, both the content and the device displaying it need to play along. So TV shows or movies need to be shot in HDR, and cinema screens, TVs, tablets and mobile phones need the screen technology to accurately display it. In other words, when HDR content becomes commonplace, you’re probably going to need a new TV to display it properly.

Sony’s XZ Premium handset, unveiled in February this year, offers not just HDR but a 4K display, too.

What’s most likely is that the first place many of us will experience HDR video is on the screen we have in our pockets: our smartphones. Sony’s XZ Premium handset, unveiled in February this year, offers not just HDR but a 4K display, too. The resolution is probably overkill for a phone, but the HDR difference is noticeable – content looks incredibly natural and realistic, and the detail is incredible.

Samsung, meanwhile, has included HDR support in its forthcoming Galaxy S8 and S8+ handsets, with equally impressive results. The new S8 devices don’t have the same resolution as Sony’s offering, but the HDR is no less impressive.

Hurry up and wait

The good news, then, is that you don’t need to rush out and upgrade your TV just yet. First, content creators and distributors will need to start making and streaming or broadcasting HDR content. Second, you’ll probably get to experience HDR on other devices before deciding if it’s a strong enough incentive to take the upgrade plunge with your TV. And third, even if you choose to hold out, whatever you eventually upgrade to will likely have HDR as a standard feature. For now, it’s just a matter of waiting.

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