- By Roberto Baldwin
- 11:00 AM
For years now TV manufacturers have been scrambling to find a feature that’ll get you to buy new TV. They tried 3-D, which crashed and burned. No one fell for smart TV “features” either, which were typically wrapped in a UI that made you want to smash your remote. Now 4K (Ultra HD or UHD) is coming. And while those extra pixels will be wasted on the average household, if Dolby’s research into a brighter screen technology is adopted by manufacturers, those UltraHD TVs will actually deliver a substantially better picture to everyone.
Dolby Vision is the company’s brighter display technology. But it’s about more than just pushing more photons at your eyes. By bringing up the overall brightness of the display, the picture has a wider dynamic range of color and contrast. At a recent demo of the technology, the difference between a high-end Dolby reference monitor and a Dolby prototype of the system using the same HDTV display panel was startling. A better picture is what you need to sell TVs. The UltraHD pitch of four times the pixels means nothing when a 60-inch TV with a 4K sticker looks nearly the same as 1080p 60-inch TV.
At CES, TV manufacturers Sharp and TCL will be demoing their own UHDTVs with Dolby Vision baked in. The televisions are expected to be available for sale later this year. Neither TV will be as bright as the prototype shown by Dolby. But if the TVs look distinctly better than current 4K UHDTV displays on the market, that might be enough to convince people that a new TV is actually worth it.
Currently, the brightest light emitting from your HDTV is about 100 nits (Nits are a measurement of luminance. One nit equals one candela per square meter). While 100 nits might sound like a a lot, the average 100-Watt light bulb emits 18,000 nits. By staring at the sun (don’t stare at the sun), you’ll take on one billion nits. Your HDTV’s relatively low brightness doesn’t just mean it’s not as bright as a lightbulb — that 100 nits is a very small range in which to present contrast and colors.
That range is far below what cameras both film and digital can record. The TVs in our homes can’t display the full range of color and contrast of what’s been shot. While mastering content, decisions have to be made about what subject gets the best dynamic range possible within that 100 nits. Anything in the highlights or shadows disappears along with details throughout the visual range.
By bumping up that brightness to 4,000 nits, the Dolby Vision prototype display isn’t just brighter, it appears crisper too. Colors look amazing and details that are lost in the mastering process for 100 nit HDTVs reveal themselves. Imagine if you took a grey piece of film and placed it over your HDTV. It would look muddy and generally just blah. That’s what a high-end HDTV looks like when it’s playing the same content next to one of the Dolby ultra-bright prototypes. It’s the kind of difference that someone buying a new TV can clearly see while standing in the an electronics superstore.
But it’ll take more than just putting a TV with ultra bright backlighting in homes. The post-production pipeline needs to be updated as well. Editing, mastering, and delivery would all need to be adjusted to handle the content being created for 4,000-nit displays. Dolby will use its relationships within the content creation field to help bring their technology to fruition. Mike Rockwell, executive vice president of the advanced technology group, told WIRED, “We’re working with them every step along the way. The post-production tools are capable of doing it. They just don’t have all the features quite yet.”
With the sale of physical media taking a nosedive and streaming media becoming the standard of watching content, TV and movie studios might need a little convincing to create the content to display on Dolby’s display. Plus, the broadcast world switched to HD in June 2009. Another switch will be difficult to propose to both national and local stations. The Dolby display feature will have to be part of any proposed 4K switchover in order to gain a foothold in the home.
That said, streaming services might have a chance to get ahead of the broadcast world here. Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft Video, and Vudu are already partnering with Dolby if the technology becomes standard.
With HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) already deployed and capable of delivering 4K at as low as 3 Mbps — and Netflix already testing 4K streaming — the next TV standards war will be waged via your broadband connection.
A future season of Orange Is the New Black could be streamed in ultra-bright 4K without having to deal with the limitations of broadcasts. All Netflix, Amazon and others would have to do is update their post-production, and they would be at the forefront of the next generation TV. That should make TV makers happy.
Manufacturers won’t need much convincing. While 4K sounds great on paper, unless you’re buying a very large TV, there is very little discernible difference between an UltraHD TV and HD under 80 inches at a regular viewing distance. Any manufacturer with Dolby’s display technology baked into their TV will have an advantage over the average 4K TV because it actually looks noticeably better. TCL and Sharp are already on board. If they generate enough buzz, expect other TV makers to quickly follow suit.
We can’t escape the inevitability of 4K (or possibly 8K). Everything will support the next generation TV technology at some point. The question is, will it be worth the hassle of upgrading an entire industry for more pixels. If Dolby Vision can get in on that upgrade, you might actually feel much better about your next TV purchase.