Letter from America: NAB 2016 Report

Heiss NAB 2016 Show Floor

If you have young children or remember yourself as child, you likely remember the question, “Are we there yet?” when traveling in a car, train, or plane. That question often comes to mind when new technology in our business is previewed, introduced and becomes available in the market.

Sometimes the new idea is a hit and gets instant and wide scale adoption, but more often than not, the concept, product or service runs through a gauntlet of leaks and market tests before seeing the light of day. Hopefully, it is then taken up by consumers or the professional/enterprise market. Along the way, at mid-point, a key metric appears.

There, after the technology is available and early adopters have taken the plunge, the inflection point is the broad scale availability of everything needed to become truly ubiquitous. That indicates success as end-users will then have a good selection of product or service providers.

With respect to 4K/UHD and HDR, particularly the latter, this year’s convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, the “NAB Show” is as good an indicator of their success as any. Think about it: If those who create and distribute program content don’t have the things they need to implement a new technology they can’t put it into practice. Conversely, if the tools are available but no one wants them, that means the idea will likely fail.

At this point in the transition from SD to HD it was plain that HD was going to take. On the other hand, think about 3D. At first there was a great deal of noise at NAB about the equipment and services required. Two years later, the lack of market traction indicated that it wasn’t worth it for companies to produce new 3D products. Looking at this, you can fill in the blanks about what the end results were.

Now that NAB 2016 is history, how do these metrics apply to 4K/UHD and HDR?

To start, remember that 4K and HDR are somewhat, but not completely connected. Yes, all of the consumer HDR sets so far are 4K, but the two are not inexorably linked. Many experts at NAB and elsewhere have said that HDR works and looks outstandingly well in HD, but the economics tell us that it is unlikely to appear in HD-only sets. [Though it is worth noting that Dolby’s USD$40,000 Pulsar monitor designed as an HDR master monitor with 4,000 nits is HD only.] However, it is not totally out of the realm of possibility that we will see a mid-point with HDR content, particularly for sports, produced in HDR but distributed/broadcast in HD.

Why? The pundits say it is obvious. It’s easier and much less costly to shoot and broadcast in HDR than 4K. Let the consumer displays decode the HDR content and upscale it to 4K. The result is much better than SDR content in 4K, they said. To our observation, they’re correct.

It all makes sense, but post-NAB what is the messaging for your clients and prospects? A few things are relevant for you and them:

  • HDR is not just about “brightness”, it’s also about contrast. Explain this by picturing a sports event with one side of the stadium in shadow while a bright sky with wispy clouds lights up the other side. With HDR, as the action moves from the light to dark side of the field everything remains visible and distinct from white to black. The sky doesn’t get blown out or the clouds disappear to see into the shadow, and the blacks don’t “mush” to see the clouds. That is the benefit of HDR without resorting to “black cat in a coal mine” imagery.
  • There are three (at least) HDR standards at NAB and in the market:
    • HDR-10 is a “lowest common denominator” version based on the SMPTE ST-2084 spec. Content distributed this way, and sets that can view it, require the latest HDMI 2.0a standard to carry the instructions that tell the display to look for HDR metadata. (Just as when HDMI 1.4a told the set which 3D scheme is in use so that it could adjust accordingly.)
    • Dolby Vision adds to the basic HDR feature set by accommodating 12-bit, rather than 10-bit panels along with other enhancements. Unlike HDR-10, it does not need 2.0a.
    • The now merged Technicolor/Philips system also needs 2.0a. Expect to hear more about it, and the “Presented in Technicolor” logo program, in the months ahead.
  • In terms of cross-version compatibility, a Dolby Vision set will typically be able to use, and benefit from, the HDR-10 info. An HDR-10 only set cannot take advantage of the extra enhancements delivered by Dolby Vision. Some brands offer only HDR-10 while others have both Dolby Vision and HDR-10. A regular SDR set doesn’t care, as it can’t see the HDR metadata or know what to do with it.

With 4K firmly established, with HDR well on the way to being a “must have,” and with more content delivery being added monthly across the globe, someone will inevitably ask if one needn’t worry about this and simply wait for 8K.

Heiss NAB 2016_Web

What we saw and heard at NAB tells us that while 8K is coming in one form or another in some countries starting with Japan, advising clients to hold off on 4K and HDR to wait for 8K would be a very bad idea. We saw it and it looks great, but for practical room-size applications it doesn’t make sense at this point. It can only be delivered via early-stage, experimental transmissions, the product gear is rare and frightfully expensive, and don’t even think about a display under 80 inches.

Going back to our notion of NAB as a good barometer of a technology’s status and future, the best summary on 8K is that it is doable and will be used for and seen in demos over the next four years leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. But, is it there yet? For practical purposes, no, not for a while yet; check with us again after next year’s NAB.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group and follow him on Twitter @captnvid.