When It Comes to TVs, Forget 4K … It’s the Brightness, Stupid

High dynamic range TV could give smaller TV makers a leg up

Dolby Vision

Pat Griffis has long been a voice in the technology wilderness.

Imaging experts like Griffis have thirsted for “more, faster and better pixels.” While the consumer electronics industry has been obsessed with more (HD! 4K HD! Retina Display!) and broadcasters and filmmakers have taken tentative steps toward faster (“The Hobbit” at 48fps! TV sports at 60fps!), Griffis has led lobbying for making pixels better, which means brighter pictures showing a wider range of colors.

Dolby, where Griffis holds the title executive director of technology strategy, office of the CEO, has lined up behind his crusade. At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, the company unveiled its Dolby Vision technology for high dynamic range TV. Three companies also unveiled Dolby Vision UHD TVs: Sharp, TCL and Vizio. Vizio aims to bring its Dolby Vision TVs, dubbed the Reference Series, to market in the second half of 2014.

High dynamic range TV is a leap forward in picture quality that anyone can spot from across the room, offering startlingly brighter brights, darker darks and more, richer colors. (Dolby prefers the term “enhanced dynamic reproduction,” arguing the term HDR is overused and refers to latitude of brightness alone, not color gamut.)

The Sharp and TCL prototypes are more eye-grabbing than today’s market-ready UHD TVs, and the Vizio Reference Series TVs have the best picture I’ve ever seen on any TV, by any maker. They could leapfrog Vizio from the second tier of TV makers to rival the leaders.

And that may be exactly the point, Griffis says.

“Everyone’s doing more (pixels),” he says. “If you’re trying go get competitive differentiation, ‘better’ is one way to get there. I think many people see what we’re showing here as being disruptive, and bringing for the first time really perceptible differences in performance.”

The Big Four consumer electronics makers, Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG, have plunged ahead with 4K TV, which is an upgrade from today’s HDTV, but the extra sharpness is invisible unless the television screen is very large — or unless viewers sit very close to the screen.

The Big Four haven’t ignored color and brightness. Sony in particular is promoting its Triluminos enhanced color, and was showing its XDR (extended dynamic range) TVs at CES. They’re aware of what Griffis has long argued: Light sells. But they are talking a lot about 4K, which means more pixels.

“(4K TV) takes a lot of engineering investment, and indeed there are some improvements there,” Griffis says. The Big Four have also invested in organic LED (OLED) TVs, which deliver gorgeous color but can’t deliver the brightness to display Dolby Vision. Griffis thinks quantum dot (QD-LED) screens, recently introduced on one Amazon Kindle tablet, should be bright and energy-efficient enough.

Vizio, Sharp and TCL aren’t waiting, though. They’re building Dolby Vision LED TVs now.

“Vizio believes the high dynamic range technology has a bigger impact on picture quality than a straight increase in resolution,” says Vizio chief technology officer Matt McRae.

“Response to the Reference Series was absolutely outstanding when people saw the picture-quality performance that was achieved and the cinematic quality of the 120-inch version,” explains McRae. “Content creators were shocked that this level of contrast, color and clarity was possible today, and did not expect to see televisions of this magnitude for three to five years. Retailers are excited to see a technology that can easily be seen in a retail setting, and felt the improvements would sell themselves.”
It all represents vindication of Griffis’ crusade for better, not just more and faster. “Everyone who sees what we’re showing here is going, ‘Wow, when can I get it?’ ” Griffis says, recounting how one d.p. blinked, dropped his jaw and said “Oh my God” on seeing HDR TV.

He notes the combination of UHD and EDR/XDR/HDR, or whatever the industry finally calls it, “may well be the combination that creates the real punch it takes to get consumers to part with their dollars.”