How will HDR shape the future of TV?

High Dynamic Range

HDR stands for high dynamic range, and describes an image that is capable of displaying bright highlights and dark shadows simultaneously. Photography buffs are likely familiar with HDR and why it is both an exciting and important development for still images, and video alike. Put simply, HDR photography combines the shadows and highlights of two or more images to create a new image that contains more detail, brighter colors, and better clarity.

The amount of information a camera can record while taking a still image, or frame of video, is limited. This presents a problem when filming a subject that contains bright light or dark shadows. The camera user will inevitably run into a problem in this situation with parts of their images turning out either over or under exposed. The result is an image that is too dark in parts (lost detail,) and too bright in others (poor color). HDR techniques solve this problem by  combining multiple images at different exposure levels to create a final product that is superior to the sum of its parts. This is accomplished with hardware capable of capturing multiple images quickly enough, and software that can layer those images together intelligently.

Four images taken at different exposure levels. Source: Wikipedia

The final result of those same 4 images layered together with HDR processing.  Source: Wikipedia

The final result of those same 4 images layered together with HDR processing. Source: Wikipedia

The Future of TV

Recent history has shown a lot of development and promotion of higher resolutions in video technology. First was HD, then 1080P HD, and now 4K. 4K is exciting, and will likely improve the way most of us watch TV in the future, but it's possible HDR will prove to be just as, or more important than 4K. The distribution model of HDR technology could be, in theory, more appealing than 4K . The gains in image quality from HDR when weighed against the additional information required to capture it are significant. HDR is capable of bringing better detail without being the bandwidth hog that 4K is. IF the hardware and software side of the equation (might be a big IF,)  is ironed out, creators of original TV content like Netflix and HULU might be drawn to technology that more of their regular users can take advantage of. For example, image quality gains from HDR are likely to scale across all types of screens, (phones, tablets, TV, and Cinema), whereas 4K is overkill for smaller displays.

Market Confusion

HDR technology is here to stay, but it's still unclear how it will adopted by TV manufacturers and content creators. Unfortunately as we've seen in the past, appealing technologies often don't obtain the market share they deserve because they don't have enough momentum. Laser discs, Minidiscs, and HDDVDs are all examples of interesting technologies that didn't make the cut. For HDR video to reach it's full potential it will need to be adopted by hardware manufacturers, content creators, and end users. 

The proliferation of HDR photography apps for smart phone users will help consumers at least become familiar with the concept. As users become more accustomed to the high contrast images HDR photography brings, it is possible they will come to expect the same from their television sets.

Content Creators like Netflix have expressed interest in filming their original series in HDR. This will help drive the bus forward because consumers will want new hardware to watch their favorite shows with better contrast and brighter colors. Netflix has also explained that the bandwidth required for HDR is significantly less than 4K source: Trusted Reviews.

Tv manufacturers are already using the term HDR to help market their televisions without actually employing the technology discussed above in a consistent way. Unfortunately this will only add to the confusion surrounding high dynamic range imagery. Hopefully, a standard will be developed so that manufacturers of audio video equipment can help deliver the benefits HDR video might offer as opposed to further muddying the waters of market confusion.