HDR and video games: Ars leaves E3 with more questions than answers

 arstechnica.com  6/20/2017 8:55:04 PM   Sam Machkovech
Enlarge / This high dynamic range mock-up does not truly represent how HDR images look compared to SDR ones. Sadly, our experiences on the E3 show floor didn’t offer much more for anybody confused by the standard.

LOS ANGELES—4K was on everyone's lips at this year's E3. We heard this buzz term (which has come to mean 3840x2160 pixel resolution) so many times that we almost made a drinking game out of it.

But the other buzz phrase for new TV sets, HDR, turned out to be a lot less prevalent.

I went to E3 expecting Microsoft, Sony, and other major game-hardware companies to pound on tables and emphasize how awesome their newest products looked with HDR features turned on. Instead, I left E3 wondering when the technology's most likely ambassadors will get around to converting the confused masses.

No great demos in our range

Sam tries, and fails, to find a serious HDR sales pitch at E3.

Confused by HDR? I don't blame you. I have written at length about high dynamic range over the past year, but I've been limited to words and approximation photos, since pretty much every TV, monitor, and phone screen in the world is limited to SDR. (Making matters more confusing, "HDR" is often used to describe a photo-rendering effect. That's not the same as an HDR screen.) My late-2016 explainer breaks down what the tech is (and isn't), and my eyes-on, tongues-wagging review of Planet Earth II in HDR explains exactly why the tech is more than an empty buzz phrase.

A quick refresher: screen standards like HDR-10 and Dolby Vision make two promises to TV purchasers. First, your expensive new panel will have a higher luminance range (at least 800 nits of perceptible brightness, compared to the 100-nit range of SDR panels). Second, the panel will support a much broader color gamut. Thus, each little pixel can explode with finer and brighter color data.

Planet Earth II is currently the best showcase for this standard's payoff. The increased resolution in a 4K panel is sometimes hard to perceive, and the extra color boost from HDR doesn't always pop on a 1080p image. But when you have more pixels and more color information within each pixel, you'll see more incredible details—including, as I wrote, "the crackles of lightning, the highlights on the edge of an unusually yellow beak, and the dust kicked up by animals when they run on branches, over desert sands, or across crowded city streets."

This combination can look amazing in video games, but not many games take advantage of the combo. All PlayStation 4 and 4 Pro consoles, as well as all Xbox One S systems, support HDR-10. However, only PS4 Pro can output games in both 4K and HDR, and, in November, Microsoft's new, $500 Xbox One X will do the same.

Niiiiiine times

I expected either console maker to use E3 as an opportunity to declare very loudly that their pricier "upgrade" consoles could combine 4K and HDR in ways that their standard consoles cannot. The above video shows off how little they did so. For starters, Microsoft's booth had zero panels set up to show off an HDR-versus-SDR comparison. I wound up asking a total of nine representatives, including game developers from two Microsoft-affiliated studios and a group of American PR staffers. None of them was sure which, if any, of the screens at Microsoft's E3 booth had HDR-10 turned on.

Meanwhile, one of the attendees we interviewed about their thoughts on HDR alleged that they saw a side-by-side demo at Sony's booth showing off SDR and HDR side by side. However, none of Ars' six on-the-ground staffers ever found this kiosk. The only SDR-versus-HDR booth we went eyes-on with came from Nvidia, and its choice of game, Mass Effect: Andromeda, demonstrated it very, very poorly. Bursts of light and color were hard to perceive on the show floor, and the slice of ME:A shown in this demo didn't emphasize major changes in color or brightness. (Nvidia has uploaded an HDR-formatted trailer to YouTube, but, hilariously, YouTube's apps still don't support HDR-10 on the devices I have handy, including Xbox One S, PlayStation 4 Pro, and my own LG smart TV's app.)

To be fair, Microsoft and Sony were careful to not place newer and older consoles side by side at E3. In Microsoft's case, that's possibly because they are trying to have it all in terms of advertising: to whet rich buyers' appetites and to assure original Xbox One owners that they're, you know, not missing much.

But HDR is far more impressive when content has been built from the ground up to take advantage of its strengths. Authentic car paint colors; brighter bursts of electric or other-worldly effects; greater detail definition in darker, eerie corridors: video games can and do look superior with these flipped on.

E3 2017 could have been the big stage on which we saw the full ecosystem of TVs, hardware, and content shaking hands and smiling brightly. Instead, we were left with hints, suggestions, and confusion. One Microsoft HDR demo ended with developers conceding that the Samsung set they tested on had not been optimized and suffered from ghosting effects. An impressive Forza Motorsport 7 demo left us wondering exactly how its HDR effects would compare to the same content on an SDR screen. Every time I guessed that an E3 panel might be HDR or SDR, I immediately second-guessed myself.

If I, an HDR-panel owner, struggled to make head or tail of the tech at E3, I can't even imagine what confused people wanting to buy into a new TV and console were thinking.

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