HDR standards: Competitive tempo picks up in 2018

LG HDR TV
(LG)

The number of HDR (high dynamic range) standards turning up in consumer devices and featured in home-video content will grow before the market decides—possibly—to scale back the selection over time.

HDR10 is ahead in content and consumer products, but in 2017, Dolby Vision gained ground, and Samsung’s HDR10+ emerged as a competitor. Hybrid log gamma (HLG) and Technicolor/Philips SL-HDR1 also advanced.

HDR10 is the early front-runner, thanks to its adoption as the mandatory HDR standard in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format. HDR10 has also been adopted by all over-the-top (OTT) streaming services but one. This year, however, Dolby Vision’s influence grew as the technology spread to more 4K UHD TVs and appeared for the first time in a handful of UHD Blu-ray players and on a handful of discs.

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ATSC 3.0 options

The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) adopted HLG and HDR10 as options in the ATSC 3.0 DTV standard. The group also elevated SL-HDR1 and Dolby Vision-based SMPTE 2094-10 to candidate-standard status for possible adoption as ATSC 3.0 options, ATSC President Mark Richer told FierceVideo. In addition, HDR10+ (also called SMPTE 2094-40) is now a “contribution under discussion,” Richer confirmed.

HDR competition is evolving in other ways as well. The UHD Blu-ray format could get new HDR options now that Samsung and Technicolor/Philips have asked the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) to consider their technologies as options.

Content distributors, meanwhile, are weighing their choices. Dish, for example, incorporates HDR10 in two set-top boxes, but it hasn’t yet delivered HDR programming, and it is “keeping an eye on how other formats evolve in the industry,” a spokesperson told FierceVideo.

Decisions by some distributors could be announced in early 2018. In late 2017, DirecTV launched some satellite- and OTT-delivered HDR content.

Making decisions

For content distributors, the decision-making process goes like this, said Brett Sappington, senior research director at Parks Associates.

“Typically, device makers support multiple formats out of fear that they will miss the ‘right’ format that ultimately wins out,” Sappington said. “So [TV] manufacturers are the first line to pare the least popular formats.”

Next in line are content distributors that “want to support a small number of formats due to the cost and effort in reformatting files for delivery,” he said. “But like CE makers, they don’t want to invest in less popular formats, so distributors will work with content producers to figure out which formats to support.”

For their part, content producers “do not want to produce content not supported by distributors or not watchable on viewing platforms, so they will assess market penetration and chat with distributors to figure out which to support.”

For studios and programmers going direct to consumers via their own OTT services or UHD Blu-ray discs, the decision-making process eliminates the content-distributor middle man.

Here’s a look at the progress of market leader HDR10 and the standards challenging it.

HDR10

The royalty-free open standard got a jump-start with its selection as the mandatory baseline HDR technology in the UHD Blu-ray format. The BDA also specified three optional standards, including Dolby Vision. The other two (Philips HDR and Technicolor CRI) haven’t appeared in players and are no longer marketed.

HDR10 also dominates among HDR streaming services. All HDR streaming services use HDR10 except for Vudu, which for now exclusively offers Dolby Vision. Amazon and Netflix offer both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.

HDR10 made further inroads in 2017 with its availability on a growing number of TVs and UHD Blu-ray discs and players. TVs with HDR10 are sold by the top U.S. TV suppliers (Samsung, LG, Sony and Vizio) and by at least four other brands. As of late September, more than 150 UHD Blu-ray titles were available from all seven major studios, all with HDR10, with 250 titles due by the end of 2017, the BDA told FierceVideo. Four studios had added Dolby Vision to only nine disc titles by the end of September, Dolby Labs confirmed. HDR10 is also ahead among OTT streaming devices, almost all of which support HDR10 exclusively.

Dolby Vision

Dolby Vision steps up performance by adding dynamic metadata to HDR10’s static metadata, and it gained in 2017 with a growing selection of Dolby Vision TVs, the launch of the first UHD Blu-ray players and discs with Dolby Vision, and September availability of the first HDR-enabled Apple TV, which supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10.

“2016 CES was looking tenuous for Dolby Vision,” but support for the format enjoyed “a huge uptick” at 2017 CES, said ABI principal analyst Mike Inouye.

“Dolby Vision has gained popularity because Dolby provides full support and tools—and money—to educate and produce content in the format to prime the pump,” said consultant Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media.

Dolby Vision also gained with ATSC’s elevation of Dolby Vision-based SMPTE 2094-10 to candidate-standard status for consideration as an ATSC 3.0 option. Video transmitted in 2094-10 could be displayed on today’s Dolby Vision TVs connected to future ATSC 3.0 gateways, or converter boxes, if the gateways support 2094-10, a spokesperson for gateway developer LG told FierceVideo.

TV makers with Dolby Vision TVs grew in 2017 to include Hisense, Philips, TCL and Sony (the latter via a firmware update by year’s end). The companies joined Vizio and LG in offering Dolby Vision TVs, which also support HDR10.

The first UHD Blu-ray players with Dolby Vision also arrived in 2017, thanks to LG, Oppo and Philips. Players from Samsung, Panasonic, Philips and Sony, however, support only HDR10, as do Microsoft’s Xbox One S and Xbox One X and Sony’s PS4 and PS4 Pro.

HDR10+

Samsung’s HDR10+ emerged as a dynamic-metadata alternative to Dolby Vision and is marketed royalty-free to encourage TV-set adoption, especially at lower price points.

HDR10+ is a potential contender because of its endorsement by Fox, Amazon’s introduction of the industry’s first HDR10+ content at the end of 2017, and the standard’s appearance in 2017 UHD TVs marketed by Samsung. Samsung’s number one share in the global TV market could persuade studios and content distributors to follow suit along with rival TV makers. Panasonic, for example, has already endorsed it.

To accelerate adoption, “Samsung is working all parts of the ecosystem [to promote HDR10+] in a way similar to what Dolby has done,” said Insight’s Chinnock.

“As a content provider, we like to think our choices heavily influence the direction that services, distributors and device makers take,” said Danny Kaye, EVP of global research and technology strategy at 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

A key HDR10+ advantage, he said, is backward compatibility with TVs and other consumer devices incorporating HDR10 decoders. The intent “is to get the widest possible adoption [of HDR10+] so that only one HDR grade of a film is required across all or most distribution platforms to be displayed on as many displays as possible,” he said.

Sony Pictures Entertainment CTO Don Eklund is skeptical about HDR10+ being completely royalty-free: “It’s a tricky question as to whether there are no royalties. There can be landmines.”

Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG)

The standard advanced with its adoption as a royalty-free option in the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard. HLG also gained among TV makers.

Samsung and Sony added HLG to their 2017 4K TVs, and LG added updates to 2017 models last fall, spokespeople told FierceVideo. The TVs would be able to display HLG content from future pay TV STBs and ATSC 3.0 gateways equipped with HLG, LG said.

HLG is gaining traction for multiple reasons. First, it doesn’t use metadata, eliminating the complexity of adding metadata in real time during the production and broadcasting of live events.

As a result, “you can produce HLG HDR using the same workflow as for conventional TV,” said Tim Borer, Ph.D., lead engineer for immersive and interactive content at BBC’s R&D unit. Second, HLG’s EOTF is backward-compatible with SDR TVs, eliminating the need to transmit separate SDR and HDR versions of the same content to homes.

Long term, metadata might still be embraced by the broadcast community because new IP-based broadcast infrastructure supports metadata. “But this will take some years to play out,” Insight’s Chinnock said.

Philips/Technicolor SL-HDR1

The companies’ end-to-end SDR- and multistandard HDR-distribution solution is part of a technology bundle called Advanced HDR by Technicolor, which also live converts SDR video to HDR at the set-top box or head end.

For ATSC 3.0 TV stations, “SL-HDR1 has a lot of promise,” said Mark Aitken, advanced technology VP at Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The proprietary technology is being tested by broadcasters in the U.S. and elsewhere, added Fredric Guillanneuf, Philips’s business development director for intellectual property.

LG already has plans, at an unspecified time, to add SL-HDR1 to its 2017 4K TVs as part of an Advanced HDR firmware update.

As a proposed option in UHD Blu-ray, SL-HDR1 would use dynamic metadata to adapt content to the properties of an HDR TV’s display capabilities and convert HDR10 content on discs to SDR in a way approved by the content owner.