High Dynamic Range (HDR) content is the future of television. Alongside 4K, it represents the biggest change in the making of your favorite TV shows and movies since the advent of high resolution.
There are dozens of companies working on HDR as we speak, from the TV manufacturers putting together the panels of tomorrow to content creators and distributors like Netflix and Amazon who are charged with making your favorite shows in the updated format and even Dolby and Technicolor, two of the most influential sound and vision companies in the past five decades.
HDR is one part of a big cycle and a massive endeavor for everyone in the cinematic community.
What is HDR?
High dynamic range isn't completely new, at least outside of TV hardware. High-end cameras and recent smartphone apps utilize HDR for higher quality photos. By combining several photos taken during a single burst, HDR leaves less room for error, and in most lighting conditions, garners striking results.
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. It doesn't really combine the lights and darks, but HDR hardware like new 4K UHD TVs separates them even further, creating a wider array of possible colors.
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 (the unit for luminance), while some made the leap to about 750 in 2014. HDR TVs, though, have a maximum nit count of about 1,000. That increase means the difference between normal outdoor scenes and more realistic ones.
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?
Because of the novelty of HDR at this stage, there isn't much content to prove its staying power. The technology is still in the experimental phase for movies, and only a few instances are on the horizon for TV. However, there are more on the way.
Dolby and Warner Bros. announced three movies on the way in HDR: "Edge of Tomorrow," "Into the Storm," and "Lego Movie." The partners plan to stream these movies on Dolby TVs, and while the current models won't fully demonstrate HDR's potential, it may encourage more entities to follow suit.
Netflix in particular has been a vocal proponent for HDR. Marco Polo, a Netflix original about the explorer and his encounter with Kublai Khan during his younger years, is the first series to be presented with HDR, but the streaming service has plans to launch the second season of Daredevil in HDR later this year.
Netflix 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.
When will HDR be available?
Right now. That's right, if you're a member of Amazon Prime and own one of the UHD Alliance-certified TVs, you can watch HDR content today.
The first full season of Mozart in the Jungle, an Amazon original series, is available in High Dynamic Range, as is the first episode of Red Oaks, another Amazon original series.
Amazon says it will have more series launching in HDR soon, and with Ultra-High Definition Blu-ray players launching around March of this year, there will be a few dozen options available to early adopters.
Editor's note: Additional reporting by Dave James and Nick Pino.
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