When it comes to the future of television 4K might be stealing a lot of the limelight, but it might be High Dynamic Range (HDR) that brings the big leap in image quality we've been waiting for.
Now that the UHD Alliance has included HDR in the UHD Premium specification, the technology has been cemented as being of equal importance to the new 4K resolution. It has to be included if manufacturers want their equipment to carry the UHD Premium label.
Unfortunately HDR isn't just something that hardware manufacturers need to worry about. Movie makers and TV broadcasters will also have to produce their content in HDR in order for the technology to make it to viewers. You can continue reading for the full list of producers on board with the technology, but rest assured that Netflix, Amazon Prime and even the BBC are either already using or investigating the technology.
More so than any other technology out there, HDR has the capability to revolutionise television image quality.
What is HDR?
The kind of high dynamic range that your TV is capable of shouldn't be confused with the HDR photography options that have recently been added to smartphone cameras.
Both result in images that have a greater contrast between light and dark, but the way they work is slightly different.
High-end cameras and recent smartphone apps utilize HDR by combining several photos taken during a single burst.
Separate photos are taken at different exposures during the process. These are called stops, and the amount of light is doubled from one to the next. So while the first stop produces an extremely dark image, the last result is exceptionally bright, lending better luminosity to the final portmanteau photo.
While it shares a name and some common points with photography, HDR video is a bit different. The end result, an image with more contrast between its lightest and darkest areas is the same, but instead of combining separate images this effect is produced using better camera technology to capture footage in the first place.
The result is an image with darker blacks and lighter whites, leading to more detail in the overall image. Whereas on a standard display everything below a certain brightness is the same shade of black, an HDR display's range goes further, allowing you to tell the difference between something that's really really dark, and something that's just dark.
HDR is bringing media closer to what the human eye sees, and by doing so, is creating more realistic images, from scenes bleached with sunlight, to nighttime shots on city streets.
Here's the takeaway: HDR TVs and content will display a more realistic color range, with an expanded contrast ratio to make black parts of the image look closer to "true" black.
How will HDR affect the viewing experience?
4K is the biggest trend in viewing hardware today, and for good reason – it delivers four times the normal amount of pixels than 1080p, presenting finer detail and better textures. Companies such as Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG are busy moving their 4K TVs onto store shelves this year, and improvements in hardware will allow more viewers to see content with the increased resolution.
But HDR is markedly different because of how it actually changes the picture. Colors are more vibrant, blacks are deeper, objects more pronounced. Hues are also more exaggerated, alternating between cool and warm in the same image.
The key here is brightness: the majority of TVs today have a typical brightness of 400 'nits' (1 nit is a measure of brightness roughly equivalent to a single candle), while some made the leap to about 750 in 2014.
Meanwhile, the UHD Alliance defines a HDR TV as one that's capable of going as bright as 1,000 nits and as dark as 0.05 nits if it's an LCD panel. OLED panels meanwhile only need to be able to go as bright as 540 nits, but must be able to reach a darkness of 0.0005 nits.
So in movies shot with HDR-compatible cameras, desert scenes will be much clearer, with colors and brightness more akin to actual sunlight. Winter shots will present a higher disparity between buildings and surrounding snow. While 4K increases the resolution quality of the picture being shown, HDR increases the colors, contrast and all-around realism.
Once HDR becomes a household viewing standard, more and more film and TV crews will likely begin shooting with HDR-compatible cameras.
What content is (or will be) available to watch in HDR?
HDR might have the potential to make TV shows and movies look amazing, but this potential doesn't mean a thing unless production companies actually start filming and producing content in HDR.
In the past the amount of HDR content has been slim, but this is starting to change as major players such as Netflix, Amazon and the BBC have thrown their support behind the technology.
Netflix in particular has been a vocal proponent for HDR. Its series Marco Polo was the first series to be presented with HDR, and this was followed by others such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
The company has been looking past 4K for some time now, and recognizes HDR as the next development in viewing potential. Netflix's Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt said he doesn't think 4K will be enough for many viewers, and that resolution innovation will be in the rearview mirror by 2016. And as a company that prides itself on watching the road ahead, it may be safe to assume more of Netflix's series will be compatible with HDR.
Amazon Prime Video has also begun supporting HDR content, with shows such as Mozart in the Jungle and Man in the High Castle. Several movies are also supported, including Men in Black 3, and The Amazing Spiderman 2.
UK readers will also be reassured to hear that the BBC has recently conducted an HDR trial which will hopefully pave the way for HDR content to be made available via normal digital broadcast.
When will HDR be available?
Right now. That's right, if you're a member of either Amazon Prime or Netflix and own one of the UHD Alliance-certified TVs, you can watch HDR content today.
As well as the HDR content that is already available from the two major streaming providers, both have pledged to bring the technology to their new series going forward.
HDR has also been included as standard in the Ultra HD Blu-ray format. The amount of discs available, not to mention the number of players, is currently slim, but as more and more films get released in the format HDR is set to hit the mainstream very soon indeed.