HDR mindshare: As awareness grows, so does confusion

LG HDR TV
LG HDR TV (LG)

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the company’s latest model of the Apple TV, Cook described HDR as bringing “the magic of the cinema straight to your living room.” High dynamic range (HDR) imaging technology has been around for years, but Apple’s recent announcement marked an important milestone for the technology: HDR has finally hit the mainstream lexicon.

Consumers have had access to HDR content and devices since 2016. Ian Nock, a principal analyst at Fairmile West Consulting, joked that the history of HDR can be divided into two: before CES 2016, and after. It was at CES in 2016 that most of the big television brands debuted their new 4K and HDR-capable sets, and other device makers began launching HDR-capable products.

But the Apple announcement in September—which included a new smartphone model that’s also HDR-enabled—marks the beginning of a new era for the technology. “This is really the first major year of promotional activities for HDR,” said David Mercer, VP and principal analyst at Strategy Analytics.

Mercer estimates HDR-capable sets are available in nearly 5% of North American homes this year. “It’s very early days, in terms of adoption of TVs that can actually show HDR,” Mercer said. “We’re still very much at the beginning of the adoption curve.”

And despite its industry support—which is markedly more widespread than 4K—there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome before we see ecosystem-wide support and deployments for HDR.

HDR device penetration grows but confusion abounds

As consumer awareness of HDR grows, so too does the complexity of offerings. From marketing messaging around HDR used by TV makers, to the growing pool of proprietary end-to-end solutions offered by vendors, to the at times confusing certification taxonomy, consumer confusion abounds.

“There are more pieces to the value chain puzzle for consumers to have to figure out,” said Paul Gagnon, director of TV sets research at IHS Markit’s technology, media and telecom division. “If you have an HDR television, and HDR source device, like a Blu-ray player or the new Apple TV 4K, and you have HDR content from Netflix or Blu-ray—well that doesn’t necessarily mean that you still get HDR.”

Most of those issues stem from the confusing network of HDR terminology. The acronym is thrown around to describe video production formats, encoding formats, decoding capabilities and display performance—not to mention the field of proprietary solutions that are popping up.

Take the case of TV sets: penetration of HDR TV sets is growing steadily, but not all HDR TV sets can actually display HDR content. And there’s a spectrum to HDR support, even among the new TV sets that claim to be HDR-compatible.

“That doesn’t mean that the performance of the display itself can fully render [HDR].The actual brightness output to achieve suitable HDR performance is quite variable,” Gagnon said. “The lowend sets that claim to be HDR TVs might only have a peak backlight output of 300 nits. That is no better than a non-HDR TV today.”

To cut through the confusion around devices, the UHD Alliance launched its Ultra HD Premium certification, which denotes support for the open HDR10 standard. But, Gagnon said, not all TV makers submit their products for certification, and many TV makers still use HDR terminology in marketing materials.

Further confusion stems from the slate of proprietary end-to-end HDR solutions, like Dolby Vision and Samsung’s HDR10+. These solutions all meet the criteria for the basic HDR10 standard, but each purports to offer a more premium video experience. These end-to-end solutions must be supported at each point in the ecosystem in order for the consumer to enjoy its full benefits, which, at present, poses a challenge for consumers trying to navigate the marketing messages.

Despite all the hype around end-to-end HDR solutions, it’s unclear how wide of deployments these solutions will actually see. “That’s all very much being defined today,” Nock said. “There are lots of things that are unknown about how big of deployments these technologies will have across all the different TVs and set-top boxes out there.” Dolby Vision, for example, probably won’t see mass-market adoption. “It’s a product for the premium devices,” he said.

OTT leads the pack in content delivery

While devices are gaining penetration, deployment of HDR content services has largely been limited to OTT providers in the U.S. so far. The digital players have an advantage as it’s easier for them to upgrade their infrastructure, and the OTT video devices were first to market with HDR support.

As mentioned above, 2016 was a seminal year in HDR devices. Besides the legions of HDR smart TVs, Roku launched its first HDR-capable streaming media player; Sony released a software update for its PlayStation 4 that added HDR support; Microsoft followed with the release of HDR-supporting Xbox One S. And in fact, the first HDR-capable Blu-ray players appeared in late 2016.

With new HDR-capable streaming devices hitting the market, the online video providers have been first to market with delivering HDR content to viewers. Amazon offered the very first show in HDR in late 2015, and Netflix followed a few months later in early 2016—both delivering their HDR content to their respective apps, which come pre-loaded directly on the new HDR-capable TV sets.

The league of traditional content providers and distributors are eager to test out the new technology, too. “Talking to studios, broadcasters and distributors—they all seem quite excited about HDR because it does have the potential to offer quite a bit of performance improvements,” Gagnon said. ‘It’ll have a big visual impact over the next five to 10 years.”

The studios have been eager to adopt HDR into their production, seeing the technology as delivering a bigger visual bang than 4K does. Once the Blu-ray players came to market, studios immediately began releasing premium HDR titles for home entertainment. Notable releases were Twentieth Century Fox’s “The Martian” and “Life of Pi.”

Broadcasters and service providers play wait and see

Amid the proliferation of solutions, traditional service providers and broadcasters haven’t thrown support behind any one version of HDR technology yet. The main issue service providers and broadcasters are grappling with is deciding which type of HDR to support.

HDR technologies are divided into two camps: Perceptual Quantizer (PQ) and hybrid log gamma (HLG). Most of the flavors of HDR talked about in the US, including the open standard HDR10, Dolby Vision and HDR10+, are PQ-based solutions. Generally speaking, HLG has more support from broadcasters—and was in fact developed by broadcasters BBC in the UK and NHK in Japan.

This bifurcation is one of the larger stumbling blocks to service provider support for HDR. For linear TV delivery, HLG offers many benefits over PQ in HDR support. For example, HLG enables broadcasters to send out just one signal that can deliver HDR to HLG-capable sets and SDR to non-HDR sets, while PQ would require two signals sent simultaneously.

Luckily, nearly all of the major TV makers have added support for HLG to their HDR TV sets via software updates. “It’s not a format war between PQ and HLG,” Nock said, noting that each one has its own pros and cons. “Now that we’ve got universal support on televisions, it will come to set-top boxes, as they deploy services.”

Consensus among experts is that linear broadcasts in HDR won’t come anytime soon. Vendor solutions for HLG are slim at present, Nock said. “There are companies today looking at launching, but they haven’t been very descriptive about when they’re going to launch,” he said. “There’s been a lot of evaluation in 2017 about what formats to use and how to launch. In 2018, we’ll certainly see several major launches in Europe and the US.”

So far in the U.S., only two service providers have announced plans for HDR: Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV. Comcast, the perennial leader in innovation for pay TV in the U.S., first announced plans for an HDR-capable set-top box in early 2016, ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Those plans have been periodically pushed back due to issues with integrating 10-bit HEVC, according to Comcast, and the company is hoping to roll out 4K and HDR STBs in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics. And DirecTV is hoping to roll out its 4K and HDR STBs in 2018, too, though details on that product launch are very slim at present. And the companies aren’t saying yet if they’ll support PQ, HLG or both.