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Like a geeky Illuminati, the UHD Alliance is deciding the future of TV today

uhd alliance explained samsung suhd tv
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Ask anyone who got stuck with a pile of useless HD DVDs back in 2008 what it’s like to pick the wrong dog in a tech fight, and they’ll tell you: It sucks. How were they supposed to know Blu-ray would win in the end?

But that’s what happens when tech companies butt heads over standards. Early adopters get screwed. Which is why, with every major TV manufacturer now trying to get you buy an Ultra High Defition (UHD) TV, you might be happy to hear about the UHD Alliance.

At CES 2015, familiar names like Samsung, Netflix, Technicolor, and Disney teamed up to form the UHD Alliance, a group charged with forging standards for UHD, from the cameras that capture the scenes, to the screens we watch them on.

Different companies, from movie studios to TV makers, will come to the table with strong ideas.

But just because there’s an alliance now doesn’t mean everybody’s suddenly on the same team. Different companies, from movie studios to TV makers, will come to the table with strong ideas, ready to fight for what they think is right. And – wait for it – the UHD Alliance is out to change what UHD stands for, just as we were beginning to wrap our heads around it.

All of this will ultimately impact your living room, and possibly your wallet, so it’s worth taking some time to sort it all out. Here’s what you need to know.

The players at the table

The UHD Alliance is made up of content creators and distributors, post-production companies, and consumer electronics companies, including Samsung, Sharp, Sony, LG, Panasonic, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Dolby Vision, Technicolor, DirecTV, and Netflix.

As you can see, those are some big names. The UHD Alliance isn’t some tiny special-interest group, it’s an amalgamation of massive corporations with very deep pockets, and they get to call the shots. Things are going to start happening, and they’ll start happening soon. In fact, the Alliance is having its first proper meeting as we write this, and one of the first items on the agenda is determining what UHD even means.

Redefining UHD

Right now, the basics of UHD are already clear: It has four times the resolution of 1080p HD, nearly 8.3 million pixels, which translates to finer lines and more detail. We also know that UHD can handle content delivered at 60 frames per second (fps) whereas most of the TV we watch today is delivered at 30 fps, with movies at 24 fps.

The UHD Alliance thinks the “Ultra” in UHD should mean more, because it can.

But the UHD Alliance thinks the “Ultra” in UHD should mean more, because itcan. So keep what you know about UHD in mind, and prepare to stack some new capabilities on top.

Like what? If we were to deconstruct what makes a TV’s picture look awesome, we’d break it down to pixel resolution, color and contrast. For the purposes of our discussion, we’re going to eliminate motion resolution (that’s another can of worms entirely). UHD already has the pixel resolution element down, so let’s see how UHD is going to improve the other two factors.

Wide color gamut

As Mark Turner, VP of Business Development and Partnerships at Technicolor, puts it, there are colors you see in daily life that today’s TVs can’t produce. “There are crucial colors that have never been represented [by televisions]. Thing’s like Ferrari’s red, London telephone boxes and busses, and green freeway signs in LA … they do not exist in the Rec. 709 color space. Whenever they’ve been represented on TVs, you are not seeing them correctly.”

Dolby Rec-709-rec-2020

Dolby

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Turner hits an interesting point. If the ultimate goal is to make a TV’s picture look more like real life, then TVs ought to reproduce more of the visible color spectrum. That capability is now possible on a wide array of televisions thanks to OLED display panels, and a new technology to LED/LCD TVs called quantum dots. To give you an idea of the increase in color production, take a look at the different color space specs below. Rec. 709 (small trianglet is what today’s HDTVs are capable of, but thanks to new display technologies, UHD can exceed DCI P3 (middle – that’s what we get at the movie theater) and is closing in on covering Rec. 2020 (large triangle), which is the broadest palette of colors conceivable for a TV (for now).

As Turner told us, there’s no dissention among alliance members over whether a new color standard should be applied to UHD. The question is what exactly that standard will be. Remember, the alliance is basically saying that if a TV doesn’t adhere to whatever this spec ends up being, then it isn’t a UHD TV.

High Dynamic Range

Another important element in making a TV look more like real life is high dynamic range, often referred to as HDR. The basic principle behind HDR is simple: expanded contrast between dark and light, which calls for darker blacks, brighter brights, and more shadow detail.

“Movies like the Dark Knight Trilogy have a lot of black in them, but there’s a lot of shadow detail that’s never been seen by consumers.”

The question is, how bright should the brights be, and how dark should the darks be? Since contrast can move up and down on a sliding scale, where does the range start and end?

“We can raise the ceiling, but it’s often a lot more impactful to drop the floor as well,” says Turner. “If you have a really bright sun on an image, you tend to push people back. But the dark shadow detail, which are unexplored in most movies, actually draw people in. Movies like the Dark Knight Trilogy have a lot of black in them, but there’s a lot of shadow detail that’s never been seen by consumers. With the ability to do absolute black, you can then do some gradients in gray that can bring enormous extra detail, which consumers have never seen.”

Turner confirms what we’ve witnessed firsthand when reviewing OLED TVs: Getting true blacks is crucial toward an amazing, eye-popping image. OLED can do that better than anything else on the market. But Dolby Vision says that brightness is really important, too.

Right now, the TV you have at home can, at best, produce about 100 nits of brightness. Dolby Vision wants to see that measurement jump to 4,000 nits! You don’t even have to know what a nit is to know that is a massive leap in brightness. Some would argue it’s too bright.

Panasonic HDR Demo CES
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

Clearly, there’s some debating to do. No matter the outcome, though, UHD standards are going to transform the way TVs look. We’ve seen what they can do, and it is spectacular. But here’s the catch: The TV can’t do all this by itself. It needs content that has the new color and HDR information in it, and that means a new standard for UHD content, too.

The studio masters

When a movie gets made, there’s a point in the process at which the movie’s director, a colorist, and a whole bunch of other people gather a room and “master” the film. When they do this, they create multiple masters, or copies, of the film: There’s one for the movie theater, and another for home video. This is necessary because movie theaters can produce a wider array of colors than TVs can, but they can’t get as bright as TVs do. So, a copy with lots of color and compromised brightness is made for the theater, and a copy with compromised color and more brightness is made for TVs.

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Now that TVs are capable of just as much color as movie theaters, and even more brightness, there is now a third master being made, one which takes advantage of those capabilities. And it is from these masters that we’ll get the most impressive UHD content yet. We’ve seen it, and believe us, it is a monumental improvement in TV picture quality – better than the theater.

Where UHD content will come from

With new and improved UHD content being generated, we need a way to deliver it to UHD TVs. On the short term, that will happen one of two ways: by streaming or by UHD Blu-ray discs.

When UHD Blu-ray arrives, consumers will finally get an at-home experience that rivals, if not bests, the cinema.

More color and HDR information will require more bandwidth, and that’s probably why Netflix is in the alliance. Netflix has always been on the forefront of UHD content delivery, and we’re sure it has a plan in mind for delivering expanded UHD content, too. However it is done, it will need to conform to a standard that the alliance will soon determine.

The same goes for UHD Blu-ray, except the standards will be different since Blu-ray discs can deliver so much more information. When UHD Blu-ray arrives, consumers will finally get an at-home experience that rivals, if not bests, the cinema.

Now wait just a damn minute!

What isn’t being widely discussed is the fact that wide color gamut and HDR — arguably the most impressive aspects of this new UHD standard — are not tied to 4K resolution. In other words, there’s no reason that a new 1080p TV couldn’t enjoy the same benefits; that’s bound to rile some people up.

When UHD was initially introduced, critics claimed that it wasn’t a significant enough jump in picture quality to justify the lofty premium price. Now that other elements are getting folded in, that premium price may look a little more reasonable. But some would say that Ultra HD panels in TVs under 65-inches are an unnecessary expense and that 1080p TVs could be made to look better for less.

Whether that assumption is true or not is immaterial, though, because TV manufacturers have made their decision: UHD is the future of TV, so you may as well learn to embrace it.