It’s hard to believe it’s been a full 12 months since the last CES®, but here we are, with CES 2016 at our doorstep, and if you think 4K or UHD was exciting, make way for 8K, High Dynamic Range, a much wider color gamut, higher frame rates, and even a nod in the direction of virtual reality content (finally).
At the front end, we know that much of this innovation was driven in an effort to boost slowing flat-screen display sales. Plasmas were dropping like lead while LCDs were floating along (though organic LED displays (OLEDs) are still exciting, and will continue to be so, given their physical flexibility).
On the back end, these new technologies are pushing the limits of digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, amplifiers, drivers, graphics and video processors, codecs, and communications systems and infrastructure. All of this is good news for our favorite engineering and component companies, from Linear Technology, Analog Devices, and Texas Instruments (ex-Burr-Brown team) to Broadcom, Nvidia, and Dolby Labs.
I bring up Dolby for a reason. In late 2014, I installed what was probably one of the first home theaters using Dolby’s Atmos sound processing and audio presentation. I used a Marantz SR-7009 receiver in a 9.1 speaker configuration and the outcome was phenomenal. Audio immersion helped alleviate the pain of a mediocre LCD 720p display, but thanks to Dolby Vision, I may be upgrading that display to a 1080p LED display, when costs come down a little more.
While 4K (4,096 by 2,160 pixels) and ultra high definition (UHD) displays (3,840 by 2,160 pixels) sound like a great idea, they’re essentially a marketing ploy to sell more screens. Even though IHS Research predicts 8K is fast on the heels of 4K/UHD, starting in 2018, few users will notice a difference from 1080p. Still, Sharp announced the first 8K display in the Fall, costing a mere $133,000.
The real value from a user point of view will come from research performed by Dolby into luminance and color depth.
High dynamic range (HDR) gives us brighter screens (measured in nits) with higher contrast to more fully tell a more visually engaging story. (Image source: Dolby Laboratories.)
Dolby recognized that while high resolution is good, high-luminance displays, measured in candelas per square meter, or nits, provide a greater opportunity for an improved user experience by allowing the content developer to use a much greater range of luminance to tell a story.
With a higher luminance range, skies are brighter, with greater contrast between light and dark, and various levels of brightness in between. For example, a yellow flower isn’t just yellow anymore: it’s bright yellow at one point and a darker yellow in another, based on how light hits it – and what the director and storyteller want us to see. How much luminance is enough? Dolby found that between 0 and 10,000 nits suited 90% of users. A standard TV signal ranges between 0.01 and 100 nits, though newer ones are reaching over 400 to 1200 nits.
This leads into the wider color gamut, the second aspect of HDR. More colors combined with higher luminance provides overall higher color volume. This is the true meaning of High Dynamic Range (HDR), not to be confused with the HDR used in smartphones, which simply processes two images to create an optimum “blend.”
HDR’s other gift is color depth. Combined with high luminance range this provides a much greater color volume, giving colors that are both saturated and bright, versus just “bright”, which gives a “washed out” appearance. (Image source: Dolby Laboratories.)
How soon we’ll see the full 0- to 10,000 nits is yet to be determined, as Dolby Vision tops out at 0 to 4000 nits with current display technology. Power consumption and screen longevity are just two factors to consider.
Dolby Vision wants to capture data at the source and present it on screens with an end-to-end production and reproduction process that the company is developing with the intent of ensuring the original artist’s vision is presented as accurately as possible. Previously, the artist's vision was obscured with various hardware limitations, such as low-nit TVs that still meander in the 100- to 400-nit range.
In the meantime, we can enjoy what CES has to offer as a storefront, with 4K or UHD, and even some virtual reality (VR) content discussions that will be taking place there, but the true excitement will be in the sweet spot of affordable high-quality audio combined with HDR.
There’s a whole other angle to this which involves choosing integrated “smart TVs” versus focusing on getting the best picture possible for our money, and buying streaming services capability, such as Roku, separately, but we’ll save that for another discussion.