As you dither over making the leap to 4K UHD (ultra high definition), over-the-top (OTT) video service providers are already looking ahead to the next frontier in the never-ending quest for a truly lifelike TV experience. We’re talking about HDR (High Dynamic Range) video, which some in Hollywood predict will be more transformative for home entertainment than 4K.
Amazon announced last week that it will bring HDR video content to its Amazon Prime Instant Video service later this year, with its original programming leading the charge. This announcement comes some three months after Netflix unveiled similar plans at the Consumer Electronics Show amid much fanfare, even letting some members of the media sample its show Marco Polo in all its HDR glory behind closed doors.
But what is the fuss about? Even if you’re a photography neophyte or a blissfully indifferent bystander, you will in all likelihood recognize HDR as an option from your phone or tablet’s camera app. Formed by combining multiple shots of varying exposure, an HDR image tends to have a wider range of contrast between its dark and white areas when compared to a normal image. Simply put, the blacks are darker and the bright regions brighter in an HDR image, with the ensuing visual effect offering a close approximation of what the eye (and not the camera) actually sees.
Why this matters: In recent times, pay-TV providers have come under heavy attack for encumbering viewers with hefty bills for content they don’t even watch. But this announcement highlights another major failing of the ossified pay-TV model: it isn’t conducive to innovation, and takes far too long to absorb new technologies. As Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt asserted in an interview with the UK’s Telegraph in January, OTT service providers can readily embrace new technologies with “even a sparse numbers of users.” 4K streaming is a fine example, because they deliver their services directly to the consumer.
As is the case with all exciting things in the beginning, there is a major obstacle to delivering HDR video content to the living room, and it’s not a technical issue but a logistical one. There simply aren’t enough HDR-ready TV sets around—if any at all—and there won’t be for some time. While you’d ideally want your TV to have a peak brightness of at least 1,000 nits to be deemed fit for HDR content, most sets today are limited to about 100 nits.
Fortunately, leading TV manufacturers plan to bring their HDR TVs to market later this year. And Amazon says it’s working closely with some of these global consumer electronics heavyweights, as well as Hollywood studios, to ensure Prime members get to enjoy a top-notch HDR experience.
We contacted Amazon for more details: Which shows will come first? Will existing movies be remastered? Most importantly, will HDR content cost extra? But a company spokesperson said Amazon had no further details to share. Considering that Amazon doesn’t charge its Prime subscribers extra for 4K content, however, it seems unlikely that it would change tack for HDR.