Adobe’s Kuler color app is a great tool for designers but is your display accurate enough for it?

Screenshot of Adobe's Kuler app showing color extraction from a photo

Screenshot of Adobe’s Kuler app showing color extraction from a photo

Adobe recently released a new iPhone app called Kuler that let’s you extract colors from your surroundings using the phone’s camera. It’s a useful tool that allows designers to capture color inspiration wherever they find it and easily incorporate it into their work via color palettes.

The app also highlights a weakness in current display technology: no display on the market today can actually reproduce all the colors we see in the environment around us. So, even if the camera sensor can capture that color you love, you may not be seeing an accurate representation of it on your device.

The iPhone 5′s LCD display is designed to cover the sRGB/rec.709 color gamut standard used for HDTV broadcasts. And, it looks great but compared to the world we see around us, it’s just not quite as rich. If we plot the iPhone 5′s color gamut against the gamut of colors found in nature, the phone comes up short in important reds, greens and cyans:

Color gamut of the iPhone 5's display compared to the gamut of colors found in nature. The iPhone 5 comes up short in red, green and cyan.

Color gamut of the iPhone 5′s display compared to the gamut of colors found in nature. The iPhone 5 comes up short in red, green and cyan.

If DisplayWeek 2013 was any indication, color has once again become a hot topic in the display industry. Color gamuts are getting larger and it may not be long before we see a display that can match what our eye sees in nature. Over the course of the next year, we will start to see more wide color gamut-capable devices as OLED continues to expand marketshare and new technologies like quantum dot LCD begin to enter the market in volume.

DisplayWeek 2013: Color is back

Just back from a great DisplayWeek in Vancouver. Finally had a chance to recover, go through my notes and process everything I saw at the show. Most of the big story lines will be pretty familiar to anyone who followed last years show: TV’s are still getting bigger, OLED TV is still right around the corner, 4K is starting to ship and mobile displays are getting both sharper and more efficient.

DisplayWeek wasn’t all old news though. In fact, just like CES, this year everyone seemed to be talking about color performance. At the annual Display Industry Awards, honors in several categories went to wide gamut display technologies including the Best In Show and Component of the Year awards. And, on the show floor, major manufacturers like 3M, Samsung and LG dedicated significant booth space to wide color gamut or color management technologies.

3M's Quantum Dot Enhancement Film demo at DisplayWeek 2013. Bottom display is using quantum dots to achieve a wide color gamut.

3M’s Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) demo at DisplayWeek 2013. Bottom display is using quantum dots to achieve a wider color gamut than OLED at higher brightness and lower cost.

3M demoed several wide color gamut LCDs  based on the Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) technology that they are partnering with Nanosys to manufacture. Ranging from smartphone all the way up to 55″ TVs in size, these devices were all showing a wider color gamut than OLED with an especially deep red. This seems like a lot of color but 3M says that in developing their Perceptual Quality Metric (PQM), a new analysis tool aimed at helping display makers model how different performance characteristics will affect end user experience, they found that color saturation positively affected the perception of quality.

In Samsung’s neighboring booth, I found a series of comparison demos designed to show that wide color gamut displays can be both accurate and pleasing to the eye. Each demo featured a camera feeding a live image of several colored objects to both standard and wide color gamut displays. In each case the wide gamut display was able to more accurately recreate the color of the objects in front of the camera. They also showed off the new color management capability of their flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone that allows the device to accurately display rec.709 content without oversaturation- something the previous generation S3 struggled with.

Samsung demonstrating the value of wide gamut displays by showing some common colors that fall outside the rec.709 broadcast gamut standard in a series of demos at DisplayWeek 2013

Samsung demonstrating the value of wide gamut displays by showing some common colors that fall outside the rec.709 broadcast gamut standard in a series of demos at DisplayWeek 2013

Finally, at LG’s booth, we saw a new LCD color filter design that allows them to cover the Adobe RGB color gamut used by photographers and print professionals.

With all of this buzz, it looks like we’ll start to see wide color gamut displays start to move into the mainstream in ever larger screen sizes over the next half of this year and into 2014.

Color and Visceral App Design

Visceral refers to the gut, rather than the mind. Our brain may try to talk us out of jumping off a cliff, but as soon as we take that first step into the void, our guts take over. We respond with a rush of emotion and we can’t help but scream from terror or euphoria. It’s a purely visceral reaction. [...]

So here’s my theory: I believe that introducing visceral elements into an app will take it past the point of just being awesome. It will make your app speak to the subconscious, built-in affinity that humans have for the physical properties I mentioned before.

That’s Rob Foster, co-founder of Mysterious Trousers, defining his theory about the importance of visceral elements in application design. The whole piece is well worth reading, especially if you are interested in design or have ever wondered just why Angry Birds is so unbelievably addictive.

In the quote above Rob is talking about the power of little kinetic events in applications like the bounce you get when scrolling to the bottom of a page on the iPhone or the satisfying little “pop” noise you hear when creating a new task in Clear. His point is well made, getting the details of these visceral elements right can clearly take an app from just useful to a truly engaging and even addictive experience for users.

While Rob’s piece focused on the impact of animation and sound, I wondered how color might factor into visceral application design.

Color choice is not just about beautiful graphics- it can also have a powerful physiological effect on us. We have a measurable response to aggressive colors like red, which may even cause a spike in testosterone levels. In fact, recent studies suggest that that the color of a uniform can affect the outcome of an Olympic wrestling match and onscreen colors can even influence how much you pay for something on eBay.

As mobile display technology improves, with more lifelike color and wider dynamic range, application designers may find that color becomes an even more powerful tool to elicit visceral responses from users.

Apple CEO Tim Cook talks color quality at Goldman Sachs conference

Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke at Goldman Sachs’ Technology and Internet Conference yesterday. He touched on a wide range of topics from what Apple plans to do with its cash horde to the state of its retail operation. When it came to a question about making lower cost products, Tim used display quality to help make a point about creating great user experiences:

The truth is, customers want a great experience and they want quality and they want that a-ha moment each time that they use the product, and that’s rarely a function of any of those things.

If you look at displays, some people are focused on size. There’s a few other things about the display that are important. Some people use displays, like OLED displays, the color saturation is awful. And so if you ever buy anything online and you want to really know what the color is as many people do, you should really think twice before you depend on the color of the OLED display. The Retina display is twice as bright as an OLED display. I only bring these points up to say there are many attributes to the display, and what Apple does is sweat every detail.

He makes some fair points here. If a display is not bright enough to view in all conditions, not efficient enough to get you through a whole day or accurate enough to display your favorite content, the experience of the whole device suffers. Choosing the right display technology is certainly a critical part of the design process.

OLED technology’s power consumption and saturation issues have been well established already. What I find most interesting in Tim’s comments is the idea that high color saturation is intrinsically a bad experience. It certainly has been that way so far but the difference between a great color experience and the gaudy oversaturation of today’s OLEDs is in exactly the kind of implementation details he’s describing above.

OLED and emerging LCD technologies, like quantum dot displays, can actually show a much wider range of colors than today’s devices– over 40% more of the color that our eyes can detect. This means that, when paired with the right content, high saturation displays can more accurately reflect the world we see around us resulting in a more lifelike, immersive experience.

But how do we get wide color gamut content into consumers hands?

It’s a lot like the chicken and egg/content and technology dilemma facing 4K TV makers with two key differences- wide color gamut can be delivered with no change in file size and there’s plenty content out there already. As an example, movies have been shot for decades on media, both film and digital, that has a much wider color gamut than your TV does today. Much in the same way that 4K TV’s can upscale HD video, it’s also relatively easy to manage the color on a device to make it backwards compatible with today’s content.

OLED implementers have thus far been content to take advantage of the extra pop that added color saturation provides when comparing devices on a store shelf. They’ve left a tremendous amount of overall ecosystem value on the table. It’s possible to deliver video in cinema-level color quality to mobile devices, to offer developers the tools to take full advantage of a wider color palette and to implement accurate color management for existing content. Wide color gamut is ready now, it’s just waiting for the right device maker to come along and put all these pieces together to perfect the experience. 

ITU agrees on HEVC h.265 codec

h-265-logo,Q-D-349573-3The ITU announced today that it’s members have agreed upon a new high efficiency video codec. Dubbed HEVC H.265, the new format is designed to improve on and ultimately replace the current king of all codecs, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC which covers 80% of internet video today.

So far, a lot of attention has been given to the codec’s ability to deliver the same quality video as 264 with only half the bandwidth. That kind of efficiency improvement is a big deal– it could reduce strain on networks and bring high-resolution 4K content delivery over the internet closer to reality.

h265 vs h264 quality comparisonThere are also some important changes for color in the new spec. Recent drafts by the ITU’s Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC) have added support for wider color gamuts like Adobe RGB 1998 and 12-bit video. This paves the way for fantastic looking color as wide gamut-capable hardware starts to become more widely available.

Color at CES 2013

I’m just wrapping up my visit to CES and it’s been interesting year for display technologies. Amid all the noise about 4K, OLED and 4K-OLED, color performance seems to have quietly worked its way into the conversation. I can’t recall ever having so many relatively technical conversations about color with booth reps from major consumer electronics manufacturers at a CES. It nearly started feeling like a visit to DisplayWeek, that is until I ran into some of the weird, only-at-CES iPhone cases

Color Your World CES 2013

I bet we’ll see more color talk next year, especially as 4K content delivery mechanisms and standards begin to mature. In the meantime, these are some of the color-related display stories that caught my eye this week:

Wide gamut content delivery

Sony’s 4K content delivery plans have been one of the most talked about topics here at CES. Less mentioned was Sony’s inclusion of wider color gamut in their standard. Sony reps that I talked to said that both the 1080P Blu-ray disc-based “mastered in 4K” and pure 4K delivery methods would include a wider color gamut. They were not ready to release specifics on gamut size or whether it would meet existing standards like DCI-P3. Still, bringing “expanded color showcasing more of the wide range of rich color contained in the original source” is a move in the right direction for wide gamut.

Color accuracy

Technicolor showed off a color certification program that they hope will incentivize display makers to improve the color accuracy of their panels. Displays that meet or exceed Technicolor’s color specs will get a badge and a copy of partner Portrait Display’s Chroma Tune software, which dynamically controls color gamut to match the application you are using. This means if you open Photoshop on a device with an Adobe RGB 1998 capable display, you’ll get the full, wide gamut. But, if you switch over to watch a YouTube video in your browser, the software will limit the display to rec.709 for the most accurate experience. The advantage was well demonstrated by their e-commerce demo, where a pair of shoes were more accurately depicted on a certified display:

Technicolor's ecommerce Color Certification demo at CES 2013. The color certified laptop in the middle of the frame more accurately shows the color of the shoes.

Technicolor’s ecommerce Color Certification demo at CES 2013. The color certified laptop in the middle of the frame more accurately shows the color of the shoes.

Like Sony’s upscaling effort, this kind of technology could help drive wide color gamut adoption by making today’s content compatible with newer displays.

Huge tablets

Panasonic 4K Tablet with sRGB color gamut at CES 2013

Panasonic’s 20 inch 4K/sRGB tablet

Several companies at the show introduced devices in a new class- the 20-plus inch tablet. While there were a lot of hokey multi touch gaming demos (are you really going to play poker with 4 smartphones and a 27″ screen instead of a deck of cards?), the content creation stuff Panasonic showed actually made me think the new form factor shows real promise as a professional tool.

Their tablet, which measures 20 inches on the diagonal, features a 4K IPS panel that covers 100% of the sRGB color gamut standard. Having such a a large canvas with high resolution, accurate color and multi-touch could be great for creative pros like photographers and architects.

Are tablets up to the task of accurate color testing?

Finally getting around to posting a follow-up to a follow-up to John The Math Guy’s recent series on color gamut size, colorblindness and tablet displays. I thought I might be able to at least shed a little more light on his question about the differences in color accuracy between some of these devices.

In his testing, John found no statistically significant difference in scores among different people taking the EnChroma colorblindness test on different devices. I found this somewhat surprising since, in my experience, even tablets with similar color gamuts tend to show colors with very different levels of accuracy.

iPad mini color gamut and Gretag Macbeth colors against sRGB in CIE1976

To show what I mean by that, I measured how two different tablets show the colors found in the Gretag Macbeth color checker chart.Nexus 7 color gamut and Gretag Macbeth colors against sRGB in CIE1976

As you can see, the iPad mini and Nexus 7 each produce very different colors, even for those colors that are actually inside their gamuts.

For example, even though the iPad mini has enough gamut coverage to accurately display the Gretag chart’s deepest blue, it cannot do so without distorting the image in another way. This is because of data in the underlying image standard- most content today is encoded in the sRGB standard. If the iPad were to show that Gretag blue correctly, it would not have enough color saturation headroom left over to show you a different color if a deeper blue, say right at the bottom of the sRGB triangle, were called for.

A good real world example of this can be found in the picture below of my bloodhound, Louisa, racing down the beach at Carmel, CA. The middle of the sky in this image is right on the edge of the iPad’s color gamut, very similar to the Gretag blue in the charts above, while the deepest blues found in the ocean fall outside the iPad’s gamut.

Out of gamut colors at beach

If the iPad were striving for accuracy at all costs, it might map both colors right on top of each other at the edge of the gamut. There’d be no visible difference between the two in this case and the quality of the image would suffer but at least the sky would be accurate. In order to avoid this scenario, the designers of these devices have decided to compromise on accuracy so they can show a full range of color differences to the user.

They do this by remapping colors inward, away from the edges of the gamut, effectively compressing the gamut even further so that otherwise out-of-gamut colors can be seen. This is a good solution given the gamut limitations of the device since it results in more pleasing, if less accurate images.

As newer devices trend towards wider color gamuts this kind of compromise should become a thing of the past. In fact, tablet designers may be working on the reverse issue- how to avoid oversaturating images that were encoded for smaller gamuts.

Great, how does this relate to colorblindness again?

iPad mini vs Nexus 7 color accuracy comparison in CIE 1976

iPad mini vs Nexus 7 color accuracy comparison in CIE 1976

Taking another look at the Gretag results from the two devices plotted on top of each other, there clearly are major differences. But, in the reds and greens, two colors associated with a common form of color blindness, the devices are relatively close. So, the simple answer may just be that colorblindness tests do not require pinpoint accuracy to be effective, at least as basic screening tools.

Color of the year for 2013 falls outside sRGB gamut

Pantone Emerald 17-5641

Pantone recently announced their color of the year for 2013, a deep shade of emerald green that they call “Emerald 17-5641.” It’s a great color but there’s a catch- most displays cannot accurately show it.

Based on data from Pantone’s website, I was able to plot the color in CIE 1931 (xy). As you can see in the chart below, Pantone’s color is well outside the sRGB/rec.709 color gamut standard used by most HDTVs, the new iPad/iPhone and many desktop monitors. These devices will be stuck showing a version of Pantone’s emerald green that’s less saturated and probably a bit more yellow than the real thing.

Pantone Emerald 17-5641 vs sRGB, Adobe RGB 1998 and DCI-P3 color gamuts in CIE 1931

This is a perfect example of a popular real-world color that falls outside of the sRGB/rec.709 gamut. Unless you have a monitor that’s able to show wider color gamuts, like the DCI-P3 or Adobe RGB standards, you are missing out on a great color.

So you bought a 4K TV, now where is the 4K content?

Content is king. One of the biggest challenges for emerging display technology is content availability. Whether it’s 3D, 4K or wide color gamut, these new features simply aren’t worth much without access lots of great, optimized content.

As new 4K TV’s begin hitting store shelves this year, they are entering a content vacuum.

Standards bodies like the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are still working out the precise definition of marketing terms like Ultra High Definition TV (UHDTV). Proposed standards could include support for eight million pixel resolution, extremely wide color gamut and 3D content. But, today, there is almost no content out there that takes full advantage of all of the exciting capabilities of the new sets.

And, unlike the transition to HDTV, there’s no government-mandated switch on the horizon to force broadcasters to get on board.

CIE 1931 rec.2020 vs rec.709

At least one set-maker is taking it upon themselves to solve this problem by delivering both the 4K content and hardware. Sony announced last week that it will loan a 4K Ultra HD video player loaded with UHD content to buyers of their new 84” UHD television. The selection of 4K content on this player is fairly limited for now, but as more titles are released, this approach could help drive adoption of high resolution and wide color gamut formats.  I wouldn’t be surprised if other set makers started following suit, though Sony does have an inherent advantage, owning a movie studio.

Shopping for a tablet this holiday season? Don’t forget to look at color performance

If you have been researching the perfect tablet to give to a loved one this holiday season, you’ve probably read a lot about display quality. Tablet display size, resolution and aspect ratio have been discussed at length this year, which is really no surprise, since the quality of the display has the biggest impact on how we enjoy content on these devices.

What is surprising though is that color performance, one of the biggest differentiators among the current crop of tablet displays, has been largely glossed over by the mainstream gadget press.

The Verge’s tablet comparison tool, for example, gives great info about pixel density, aspect ratio and touch capabilities, but color performance is nowhere to be found:

Color is being ignored in spite of the fact that there are tremendous differences in the color performance of each of these devices that directly impact the consumer experience on each.

So why are we overlooking a feature that, unlike many of the features we focus on these days, presents a real difference between devices?  I see a couple reasons. First and foremost, thanks to Apple’s marketing of the Retina display, pixels-per-inch has become the spec du jour in today’s device wars.  Device makers are focusing their marketing efforts on pixel count above anything else.

Aside from current trends, I believe there’s also a macro reason to why color has been left out: color performance is just hard to compare. There is no universally accepted spec that can sum up color performance across devices.

Take the three popular tablets above. We could add a “color gamut” row to the chart, measuring against sRGB, which would look like this:

From this information, a shopper could gather that the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD have about the same color performance and both outdo the iPad mini. That is an accurate assessment, but it’s not the whole story. If we look at those color gamuts plotted in CIE 1976, some important nuances become apparent.

By measuring the percent of sRGB, we know how much of that overall color standard the device can reproduce.  However, displays usually produce more of one color than another and that information is completely lost with this measurement.  The Nexus and Kindle have significantly deeper blue than the iPad mini, most likely due to a narrower blue color filter like the one found in the third and fourth generation iPad. This accounts for most of the difference in sRGB coverage between the iPad mini and the other two devices.

Take a look at the other two primaries and it gets more interesting. In the image on the right that zooms in on green, we see that the Kindle Fire has the deepest green of the three, followed by the iPad mini and the Nexus.

For reds, though, it’s different again, with the Nexus having the deepest reds followed by Kindle and then iPad.

If we ever want to make color performance a real differentiator in consumer choice, we need to develop a new universal standard to easily compare color across devices, taking into account all of these nuances.

Color is a complex story to tell, but small differences in color performance are just as noticeable to consumers as pixel density in everyday use. Next time you find yourself at a retailer who carries all three devices, try googling test patterns and look at the differences. You might be surprised.