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HDR: The Next Big Video Thing

Let the hype cycle begin. Even with 4K TV still in its earliest deployments, video technologists have already moved on to the next big thing: High-Dynamic Range (HDR).

HDR television has been around for several years, but it took on new momentum in 2014. The technology, which is already mainstream in still photography, adds greater luminance and contrast to imagery. In the video world, the average TV today measures around 100 candelas or 100 nits for brightness. With HDR, it's possible to display video at 1,000 candelas or more. In addition, HDR is designed so that images don't wash out in bright light and dark pictures don't lose richness and detail.

Part of the reason HDR has entered the spotlight this year is because of Dolby Laboratories Inc. (NYSE: DLB). The company, which is historically known for its audio products, demonstrated Dolby Vision, a brand of HDR technology, at major conferences in 2014. And it plans to introduce the first Dolby Vision television sets in early 2015.

However, Dolby is just one part of a television ecosystem that has to evolve to make HDR TV a reality. Just as it took time for high-definition technology to become standardized and for HD content to become widespread, so too will it take years for HDR to reach mass adoption.

In the meantime, most people are still trying to wrap their arms around 4K. (See 4K TV Shipments Surge After Slow Start.)

In a recent interview, Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS) Engineering Fellow Sean McCarthy explained that there are three main components to HDR that have to be implemented. First, the gamma function that maps linear light to a specific code value for a display screen needs to be updated. The current system was originally designed to support the display output capabilities of an old-style cathode ray tube (CRT) set. Now that newer screens can display much brighter light, the coding system has to be adapted.

Second, there needs to be a standardized way of signaling a television receiver when the content being transmitted is HDR. That will require defining new metadata sets and teaching the systems involved in video delivery what that metadata means and how to respond to it.

Third and finally, the industry will have to decide how new HDR signals are carried. There is discussion about using a layered approach, which could create different levels of video quality for transmission. This would potentially let even non-HDR TV sets receive HDR content, which would be like enabling a standard-definition TV to receive HD channels, albeit without the HD quality.

Included in the discussion about signal transmission is whether the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) compression standard could be compatible with HDR content. That determination will make a difference in how much bandwidth is needed, and also in how HEVC may continue to evolve. (See Broadcom Debuts New HEVC SoCs.)


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Despite all the work that still must be done, many people in the TV business are optimistic about HDR's future, according to McCarthy. Unlike with 4K television, it's not only the television manufacturers who are primarily pushing the technology. The content creators are excited as well because of the dramatic difference in visual quality. With HDR, the improvement is apparent no matter what size TV is being used or how far away the viewer is.

"I've had conversations with all components… from the programmers all the way down to cable companies," said McCarthy. He noted that they all see the benefits of HDR.

It will still be several years before HDR TV spreads throughout the market. But, given the current excitement, there's no doubt the technology will be making the conference rounds again in 2015. There's always got to be a next big thing, particularly with CES just around the corner.

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading

mhhf1ve 12/19/2014 | 4:32:07 PM
4K, HDR, 3DTV... can I get video that doesn't buffer so much? If I'm being paranoid, I think these new video formats are emerging in order to threaten YouTube's dominance of online video... I'm sure Google is working on ways to deliver 4K and HDR video via YouTube (along with the super high quality ads that will pre-roll before those clips), but how many consumers will have the bandwidth to actually watch these video formats? It will be a return of buffering like trying to watch online video with a dialup connection.
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