Letter from America: The Engineers' Picnic

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Put about 300 of the world’s best technical minds in the world of video, audio and associated disciplines together in a splendid resort in Palm Desert for about a week and what do you get?

Those who correctly bemoan the scarcity of women in technical fields might say, “Long lines at the men's room.” That would be correct, though in fairness one of the major session tracks was led by an highly placed woman, as was one of the more technical papers on a new way to represent color.

But seriously, what you have is the Hollywood Professional Association’s annual HPA Tech Retreat, (TTR) or, as it has sometimes been called, “The Engineer’s Picnic.” This is where the folks who figure where entertainment is created and delivered in some form or another compare techniques, experiences and learn from one another. Given that, one might reasonably ask why you, on the residential and “custom” side of things, should care.

Good question, and hopefully a good answer: What we hear and see each year at TTR is a wonderful way to find out whether the projections made about technology or formats will come to pass. After all, these are the people who make it happen; without them, it doesn’t matter what the program material is, you and your clients will not be able to see or hear it.

As one might expect, the largest number of presentation revolved around High Dynamic Range (HDR), not just for 4K/UHD content, but quite possibly for “standard HD,” as well. This is important, as while we are already seeing UHD content via streaming and physical media delivery for UHD, and soon in many countries via satellite and/or cable, even the most optimistic progressions put the availability for over-the-air delivery of 4K material still 18 to 36 months away.

However, since HDR can be part of a metadata signal that is able to be carried within the DVB or ATSC transport streams with little change. Thus, it is not outside the realm of possibility that HDR content can be sent out must sooner that the 4K OTT eco-system will be approved on a number of levels and only then available.

Yes, it is true that all of the current sets with HDR are 4K and it is unlikely that with HD sets moving down in price that any of them will incorporate HDR. However, there was wide agreement at TTR and elsewhere that HDR is actually more important than 4K. That, in turn, means that creating content in today’s HD resolution but with HDR data gives the viewer the best of both worlds when the display upscales the input signal to 4K. 

To qualm any concerns about compatibility, it was suggested that live production such as sports broadcasts, expected to be a mainstay of HDR content other than movies, be “shaded and graded in SDR with the expanded range of HDR basically going along for the ride.” After all, as one TTR exhibitor told me, “If the video operators simply did HDR, the range is so wide that they could put their feet up on the console and do just about nothing.” By paying careful attention to SDR, one mix can serve both without the extra cost of two versions of a program as we had during the early stages of HD and 16:9.

Will we see HDR in HD, as well as UHD, content? It’s too early to tell. However, the hints toward this technique will give you an extra reason to justify HDR displays while the rest of the content and eco-system pieces fall into place. CAUTION: Don’t promise that this will happen, as it is still in the discussion stages and may, or may not, come to pass. However, the major takeaway on HDR from this august body of engineering talent was that HDR is here, it is real and it is not going away. Any display one of your clients considers, along of the supporting HDMI, HDCP, audio and source material pieces of the puzzle need to be “HDR-compliant.”

Put another way, any mention of 3D, of which there were few and far between, was met with either silence or laughs. A hot topic of discussion at TTR less than five years ago, 3D is all but gone outside of a handful of high-profile theatrical releases. HDR, on the other hand was unanimously proclaimed as the “real deal” that is not going away. It’s real, and it is going to be a “must have.”

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With all the discussion about HDR, there were some cautionary statements that you may find useful. First, there is a great deal of talk surrounding HDR in the consumer world about the high brightness of HDR displays. That is certainly true, but caution those clients drinking from the “How bright the image is!” fountain with some more explanatory ideas. First, mention was made that HDR is not about brightness, alone. One presenter told about HDR colourists working with professional HDR monitors that, while HD in some cases, have a peak brightness of 4,000 nits. That is four times the recommended brightness for the UHD Alliance’s “UHD Premium” standard.

To those who seek the brightest possible image, caution then that those colourists can’t sit in front of their monitors for more than an hour without taking a break. Yes, a football or cricket match will look splendid in HDR, but the eye naturally goes to the brightest, not the darkest area of an image. A bright screen by itself doesn’t help reveal the play under the dark shadow of a stadium. Luminance and the ability to see into the dark areas of a scene as well as have vivid colours throughout and “more f-stops” is what it is all about.

Looking to explain all of this to a technophobic client or prospect? Here’s a TTR quote that anyone can understand: “HDR allows the preservation of contrast (e.g., the black and white levels) along with the simultaneous preservation of both shadow and highlight detail.”

That is what they are paying for, that is what they will get (with HDR content, of course). and that is worth the extra cost. Most importantly, that is a great way to explain and sell it, straight from the mind and mouths of the folks who have created it.

As with any new standard or technology, it sometimes takes a while before things are fully formed and standardized. The different multichannel audio systems from Dolby and DTS have been a great example of that through the years. When it comes to HDR that is also the case. Here, you will hear names such as HDR-10 and Dolby Vision to describe how the HDR content is constituted and to a display. Some sets do one, some the other, and it is certainly possible to do both. This is one of the things that will have to sort itself out over time – or not. Driving this will be how the studios and other program suppliers deliver their HDR content. How that falls out will likely then drive what the display manufacturers do.

Bottom line: HDR is here today and will be commonplace very shortly, along with the streaming content accessible now and through all of UltraHD Blu-ray players and many of the 4K discs. Sports? Not to the public quite yet, but with Sky Germany, the UK MotoGP, the Women’s World Cup, the Sony Open Golf tournament and other high profile events used as test beds. To paraphrase an old movie trailer slogan, it is “coming soon to a video display near you!”

Throughout the five days of TTR there were more than enough sessions where some of the attendees, your humble correspondent among them, wished that the session breaks served aspirin rather than coffee and granola bars. After all, where else would you be able to listen to a lengthy seminar titles “How Many Nits is Color Bars?” (By the way, the answer seemed to center around 100, but there was no firm answer.) Or, another interesting, but complex, presentation about I/Cr/Cp as a more accurate way to describe colour space and volumetric measurements than the long-standing Y/Cb/Cr methodology in an attempt to improve colour accuracy with fewer bits and allow for improved hue linearity that is more akin to the human visual system.

On a more practical and understandable matter, TTR creator and major-domo, the multiple Emmy award-winning video engineer, consultant and historian Mark Schubin, presented on the impact of ambient lighting and reflections on HDR. The bottom line of interest to our constituency was a reminder that room design and the viewing environment must take into account, and to the greatest degree minimize, light reflected back to the screen from the side and back walls.

Mark’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion was to have viewers wear full-face black knit masks, much as one sees on counter-terrorism police. To be sure, a bit of hyperbole, but a great way to show clients why you may suggest room treatment and design the way you do for proper viewing.

As with any trade show or technical conference, it is often as important to note what was not present or talked about as looking to see what was on the program. Looking back at this year’s TTR we note that along with the absence of 3D, there was almost no discussion of 8K production, distribution or displays. It’s out there, but perhaps the emphasis on it is a bit too far out there at the moment.

Similarly, there was precious little on audio to accompany 4K/UHD content. On one hand, we already have Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro3D and MPEG-H/Part 3. The first three are available and competing for the streaming/packaged media market today. On the other hand, it is basically down to Atmos and MPEG-H in the broadcast world. Until a decision is made as to which standard will be used for the North American-centric ATSC 3.0 standard and the next generation of DVB, we’re likely to be a bit stalled as to over-the-air 4K content.

The Engineers' Picnic? The food was good, literally for the body and figuratively for the mind. Taking away the lessons from TTR, we can certainly say that if you take careful note of what HDR and surrounding technologies are and how they will be implemented and should be used, the meal will be great.

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, follow him on Twitter @captnvid, or comment on his article, below.