On the heels of endless buzz about high-dynamic range at CES in January, Netflix moved the market in late February, announcing at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that it plans to back HDR in a big way in 2016.
In the view of a lot of industry observers, the imprimatur of the streaming giant represents a breakthrough moment for one of the top features of 4K Ultra HD (UHD) TVs and services. HDR technology offers higher contrast between light and dark images—i.e. darker darks and brighter brights on the screen—and has already seen adoption by numerous consumer electronics companies, content creators and content distributors.
But a big push by Netflix (with its original series Marco Polo and the second season of Daredevil the service’s first to include HDR) may help transform the technology from something most consumers may not have heard of into a mainstream must-have, according to Vincent Moy, director of entertainment industry analysis for research firm The NPD Group.
“Netflix is the undisputed leader in the streaming space, and their endorsement of HDR is significant,” Moy said. “Although they weren’t the first to publicly adopt HDR, Netflix has essentially raised the bar for new players looking to enter the marketplace. Netflix—and the others—could use HDR to segment their customer base and tailor marketing efforts depending on viewers’ appetites for HDR video.”
Paul Gagnon, director of TV research for research firm IHS Technology in San Diego, said to this point HDR has suffered from a “chicken and egg” problem: There has been little in the way of a consumer install base with the necessary hardware to support HDR content (though at this year’s CES, every major consumer electronics company—including Panasonic, Sony Electronics, Samsung, Sharp, Hisense, Philips and LG—announced HDR support for their 2016 lineups of TVs).
But that hasn’t stopped a number of content companies—including Hollywood studios Fox, Universal, Sony, Warner and MGM—from promising HDR content, and digital content services—including Amazon, M-Go, Vudu and more—from already offering it, ahead of mass adoption of the hardware.
“What Netflix and others are doing is trying to get in at the beginning of it to try and reinforce the adoption, instead of waiting organically for adoption to grow, which frankly hasn’t worked in the past with technologies like 3D,” Gagnon said. And unlike 3D, which saw a huge amount of hype among TV manufacturers, but slow content available to match at the outset, with HDR “there’s been a more coordinated effort, with the hardware and content announcements both coming quickly in almost equal measure,” he added.
Jim Freeman, VP of digital video for Amazon, said that when the company debuted shows with HDR in May 2015 on its Amazon Prime Video service—with little in the way of HDR-enabled hardware—it was an acknowledgement that HDR provides something new for the home viewing experience.
“We think that offering movies and TV series in premium and enhanced quality not only raises the bar on innovation that customers have come to expect from Amazon, but fulfills customers’ desire to have a truly cinematic experience right on their TVs,” Freeman said. “We’ll continue to work with Hollywood studios, technology leaders and consumer electronics companies to expand our HDR and 4K offering.”
SEEKING UNIVERSAL STANDARDS
A baseline HDR system (HDR 10, a combination of standards from the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers, MPEG HEVC and others) has seen pretty widespread usage and adoption among CE and content companies. And yet, the industry has also seen competing proprietary HDR standards emerge from the likes of Technicolor, Phillips and Dolby.
Netflix has announced that its HDR content would be supported with HDR 10 and Dolby’s standard, Dolby Vision, which could help sway CE companies and other digital services to go in Dolby’s direction, according to Roland Vlaicu, VP of consumer imaging for Dolby Labs.
“From our perspective it’s a very big deal, and it’s a realization on the Netflix side that the pairing of their original content, which is of the highest quality, teamed up with the highest-quality HDR format, is a very good idea,” Vlaicu said. “While the Netflix partnership announcement is a global one, we’ve also announced the partnership with [Walmart-owned] Vudu here in the U.S.”
Warner Bros. was the first to offer 4K titles with Dolby Vision HDR for Vudu, available for playback on the Vizio Reference Series 4K TVs. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment (USHE), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE) have all agreed to support Dolby Vision HDR in their home entertainment releases. Combined with close to 70 home entertainment hard-ware products that have been announced or released that include Dolby Vision, Vlaicu said Dolby Vision has the support needed to make it a front-runner for HDR content.
“It’s a great selection of content already out there… but what we’re seeing today being released is just the tip of the iceberg,” Vlaicu said. “We’re close to a point of critical mass where people will look to purchase a TV with Dolby Vision. Dolby Vision, on the playback side, is the superset that supports both generic HDR playback as well as Dolby Vision content. You’re on the safe side when you buy a Dolby Vision set, because you can play all these different flavors of HDR.”
However, Technicolor has been busy making its own HDR waves. The company has worked with LG Electronics to deliver HDR content that meets the standards of the UHD Alliance, a consortium of consumer electronics manufacturers, major Hollywood studios, tech companies and content distributors. It also announced a partnership with Royal Philips that sees the two combining their resources on HDR encoding and decoding software and content creation tools. Technicolor also has made agreements with set-top box and system-on-chip manufacturers (including Marvell, MSTAR, Sigma and STMicroelectronics) to adopt its HDR technology.
“Combining the HDR research from two of the most prominent and trusted names in imaging is a significant step in the maturity of HDR technologies,” Manuele Wahl, senior VP of technology and trademark licensing at Technicolor, said when the Philips partnership was announced.
Along with the UHD Alliance, the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers, the International Telecommunication Union, the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the Blu-ray Disc Association and others have all weighed in on the standards needed for HDR. But according to NPD’s Moy, it looks as if the market is already making a choice in that regard.
“Universal standards—which have stymied previous format launches—appear to be easier to come by for HDR,” he said. “The major TV manufacturers—including Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic—have already lined up in support of Dolby Vision and HDR 10. There is less industry friction this time around.
“Also, since it’s SVOD players who are leading the HDR charge, there are fewer delivery barriers than would exist for a new a physical media format (e.g., disc replication and players),” Moy continued. “The HDR bandwidth requirement is obviously higher than for non-HDR content, but it’s incrementally greater than 4K UHD, not exponentially greater.”
IHS’s Gagnon said that while the differing HDR technologies may present a “minefield” for consumers in that what plays on one TV may not be able to play on another, already the home entertainment industry is learning from mistakes it made in the past.
“With HDR you’ve got groups of companies coming together to develop a standard at the outset of a technology, instead of after the horse has already left the barn,” Gagnon said. “That’s what the Ultra HD Alliance did at the beginning of the year, bringing together movie studios, TV companies and distributors to give the industry certainty around what the standards are.”
Or as Amazon’s Freeman put it: “It’s still early days. We’ll continue to work together to bring more titles to our customers in HDR this year.”