Google announced an updated version of their Nexus 7 tablet this morning. Central to Google’s pitch was the improved display with both more pixels and more color. The device does feature an impressively high resolution, packing 2.3 million pixels into a 7″ form factor. But, I’m more interested in the color performance and, on this point, Google was vague offering only that the display, “has a 30% wider range of colors.”
What do they mean by that?
It depends on their frame of reference- what color space they are using and what color gamut standard they are comparing against. Since Google talked about the accuracy of HD video at their event, let’s assume that they are referring to the HDTV broadcast standard (rec.709) and using the common CIE 1976 (u’ v’) color space.
When I measured last year’s Nexus 7, I found it could only reproduce about 82%* of the colors found in the rec.709 standard. Color reproduction was not accurate and a little bit undersaturated on this device:
Color gamut of Google’s previous generation Nexus 7 versus the HDTV broadcast standard (rec.709). Plotted in CIE 1976 (u’ v’).
With just a simple calculation, increasing 82% by 30%, you’d get about 106% coverage of the HDTV broadcast standard. While that’s actually a slightly wider color gamut than the standard, it is not uncommon for device makers to use a wider color gamut in order to guarantee the color spec across all devices with some room for manufacturing tolerances. This means video and web content should be displayed accurately and it could make for a great looking display.
We’ll order and measure one as soon as they are available to verify so stay tuned…
* note: I always measure coverage of broadcast standards, not simply total area since that can be misleading. However, in this case, coverage and area are nearly the same since the Nexus 7’s gamut is smaller than rec.709.
Last week I looked at the three “P’s” of human color perception– physical, physiological and psychological– as a way to help define a color gamut for the ideal display. Based on real world examples from art and commerce, I concluded that the range of colors found in nature, as measured by Pointer, provided the best fit with our two design goals which were an accurate and exciting, immersive experience.
This week, I’d like to get a little more practical and take a look at existing color gamut standards to see what we might realistically be able to achieve today.
What fits best?
Color gamut of 4,000 surface colors found in nature as measured by Pointer in 1980 against the color gamut of the iPhone 5.
The first thing you’ll notice about Pointer’s gamut (pictured above again) is that it’s a pretty odd, squiggly shape. This means it is going to be difficult to cover efficiently with a three primary system that mixes just red, green and blue to create all the colors we see, like the LCD found in the iPhone. In order to cover Pointer’s with just those three colors, we’d need to make them extremely saturated. There are proposed standards that take this approach, such as rec.2020, but since they are not practical to implement today from a technology standpoint I’ve decided to ignore them for this discussion.
For the near future, we’ll need to rely on just three colors to get the job done, so what can we do now? Let’s look at two popular wide color gamut standards: Adobe 1998 and DCI-P3:
Current wide color gamut standards Adobe RGB 1998, commonly used by pro photographers and designers, and DCI-P3, used in digital cinema, compared to Pointer’s gamut in CIE 1976
Let’s start with Adobe 1998. Many people are familiar with this color gamut since it is found as an option on many consumer cameras and it is popular among creative professionals. It certainly covers a significantly wider range of colors than the HDTV broadcast standard with a very deep green point. The rich cyans that we talked about in the movie “The Ring” would look great in Adobe 1998. But, we’re not getting any more of those exciting reds and oranges. In fact, Adobe’s red point is identical to the HDTV broadcast standard.
What about DCI-P3 then? Designed to match the color gamut of color film and used in cinemas all over the world, DCI-P3 has a very wide gamut. The reds are particularly deep and, of course, all of the colors from the movies we looked at are covered. Still, it’s missing a lot of the deep greens found in Adobe 1998 and only just fits the green Pantone color of the year. So DCI-P3 is not quite perfect either.
What about a hybrid, custom gamut?
What if we combined the green from Adobe with the red from DCI-P3 and their shared blue point? We’d end up with pretty good, high 90’s percentage coverage of Pointer’s gamut, coverage of all of the existing HDTV broadcast content, full coverage of cinema content from Hollywood and a superior ecommerce experience with most of the colors from the natural world covered.
Hybrid color gamut standard that combines the green point from Adobe 1998 with the deep red of DCI-P3
Looks pretty great and we can make displays now that cover this color gamut with today’s technology. But how would it work on the content side? Would we need to get together and agree on this new standard and then wait for years while it is slowly adopted by content creators and display makers?
Next week we’ll look at how content delivery might evolve to support gamuts like this without the need for major changes to broadcast standards.
Last week I set out to define the ultimate consumer display experience in terms of color performance. I laid out some potential color performance design goals for an ideal display, suggesting that such a display should be both accurate and capable of creating an exciting, immersive experience that jumps off the shelf at retail.
Can we achieve both goals? To find out, let’s start by looking at how we perceive color.
The color of objects that our eyes see in nature is determined by three things: physical, physiological and psychological:
The color of objects that our eyes see in nature is determined by three things: physical, physiological and psychological.
The physical component of our color perception is a constant based on the laws of nature. It is a combination of the quality of the illumination or light source, in this case meaning spectrum it contains, and the reflectance of the object. In the image above, the ball appears red to the eye because it is reflecting red light, while absorbing most the other colors from the light source.
The physiological part of our vision is also a relative constant that is based on the electrochemical processes of the eye. The back of the retina contains photoreceptor nerve cells which transform incoming light into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent to the optic nerve of the eye and onto the brain, which processes and creates the image we see. And that’s where the psychological component comes in.
Let’s look at how each of these components might affect display color performance, starting with the physical, which ought to be something we can measure.
Fortunately, a guy named Pointer has done this for us. For his 1980 publication, Pointer measured over 4,000 samples and was able to define a color gamut of real surface colors, of objects found in nature. The result is commonly called “Pointer’s Gamut:”
Color gamut of over 4,000 colors found in nature as measured by Pointer against the color gamut of the iPhone 5.
This already seems like a great place to start. It immediately looks like a great fit our first ultimate color experience criteria which was accuracy. If we could accurately capture and reproduce all of the colors found in the natural world it would make for a much improved, more accurate ecommerce experience, for example.
But how important are those extra colors? Looking at Pointer’s gamut mapped against the color gamut of the latest iPhone in the chart above, you have to wonder if we really come across these deep cyans and reds in everyday life. Are they just infrequent, rare colors or something worth pursuing for our display?
Turns out we do. As an example, Pantone’s color of the year for 2012 was a deep emerald green that falls outside of both the iPhone’s gamut and the HDTV broadcast standard. This is an important and popular color that appears a bit too yellowish on your computer monitor when you are shopping for the perfect tie on Amazon. So there are some really important colors outside of what the iPhone can display today.
But, what about our second criteria, the lifelike, exciting, immersive experience we want to give consumers? Is the gamut of the natural world enough?
If we look at the second component of the visual system, the physiological component, we’ll see that we can actually perceive a much wider range of colors. The cells in the back of retina can actually detect the entire range of the CIE diagram. That’s almost double the range of colors that Pointer found in nature:
Color gamut of the average human eye vs gamut of colors found in nature as measured by Pointer
This is starting to sound like a much more immersive experience. Maybe we ought to pursue the full color capability of the human eye just like the industry has done for high, “retina” resolutions.
It sounds great but it would be a tall order. It would take quite a lot of power, brightness and extra bit depth to even begin to think about covering a color space this large. There certainly would be a high price to pay in terms of design tradeoffs to get there. So are there any truly valuable colors contained in that extra space, similar to the Pantone color in Pointer’s gamut, that would make us want to go for it?
This is where the psychological component comes into play.
Seeing is not passive. Our brains add meaning to the light that our eyes detect based on context and experience and memory. We are continuously and actively re-visualizing the light that comes out of our retinas.
This may seem hard to believe but this fun demo created by neuroscientist Beau Lotto does a great job of showing just how much our brains actively interpret and change what we see.
The color of the chips has not changed in the video above, just our perception of the color. What’s happening here is our experience is telling us that the color chip in shadow must actually be a much brighter color than the chip under direct illumination, so our brain is just making the correction for us on the fly.
Artists absolutely play on this psychological element of our perception of color, sometimes using totally unrealistic or hyper real colors to make us feel or experience something new or help tell a story. In fact, one of the most influential art instructors of the 20th century, Josef Albers, once said that, “the purpose of art is not to represent nature but instead to re-present it.”
Monet’s The Poppy Field, near Argenteuil
So, whether it’s Monet using saturated and contrasting colors with equal luminance to trick our brains into seeing poppy flowers sway in an imaginary breeze in a 19th century painting or modern films which sometimes rely on the wider gamut capabilities of color film and digital cinema projection to create uniquely cinematic experiences for audiences.
Movies like “The Ring,” for example, which used a deep cyan cast throughout much of the film to create tension and help tell a scary story. Or Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies, which use deeply saturated oranges, reds and teal greens to create an exciting, eye-popping palette appropriate for a summer blockbuster sci-fi movie about giant robots:
There’s certainly a place for wild, unexpected colors in art. But, as we go through some of these examples, I think we’ll actually find that there is a huge range of expression possible within the gamut of surface colors that Pointer measured. The full range of gamut detectable by the human eye, while exciting to think about, is not really necessary to deliver both accurate and pleasing (engaging) color to our visual system.
So where does that leave us?
In my next post I’ll look at existing wide color gamut standards and content delivery mechanisms to see both what we can do today and what’s next for wide color gamut displays.
The 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.
There 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.
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.
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.
Adrian Covert of Gizmodo has an interesting piece looking at the gadget industry’s recent obsession with high PPI displays. With devices like the HTC DNA pushing resolution well past 300 PPI, electronics makers may be turning PPI into the next overhyped marketing stat, just like contrast ratio is for the TV industry and megapixel is for the digital camera.
Adrian gets to the heart of the problem:
There are plenty of ways to make a better-looking display. But we’ve reached the point in the pixel density wars where higher figures have stopped automatically equating to improved performance for users. Any grandstanding about pixel density, from here on out, now is mostly just marketing fluff.
We tend to agree, and color performance is probably the display feature with the most room to improve. The best LCD smartphones on the shelves right now can show you more pixels than your eye can detect, but can only show you about a third of the colors you can see. If electronics makers want impactful feature improvements for new devices, color performance is where it’s at.
Commenter William thankfully double checked our math and we’ve corrected a small error in our % NTSC calculation.
We finally got our hands on an iPhone 5 yesterday. I tried asking Siri if she really has 44% more color saturation but she wouldn’t give up the goods, so I went with plan B and aimed our PR-655 spectroradiometer at the phone to find out just how impressive the screen really is. A lot has already been written about this display, but not much empirical evidence has been published about the color performance. How does the screen actually stack up to the marketing claims?
In short, Apple did an exceptional job improving color saturation and display quality in general, but the unit we measured just missed the 44% more color saturation claim.
The iPhone 5 has significantly more color saturation than the 4S.
The 44% more color claim for the iPhone 5 is the same claim Apple made for the new iPad. As with the iPad, increasing the color performance of the iPhone 4S by 44% of NTSC 1953 gamut, measured using the CIE 1931 color space, would result in color saturation matching the sRGB color standard. Using these standards as the goal posts, we measured the iPhone 5 at 70% of NTSC 1953 in CIE 1931, a 39% increase from the iPhone 4S, which measured at 50%. That’s 5% less of an improvement than Apple’s 44% claim and just 99% of sRGB (measured against the sRGB primaries).
While 5% less might seem like a big deal, getting to 99% of sRGB is a major feat and will result in tremendously noticeable color improvement in the phone. Additionally, color filters are notoriously difficult to manufacture. Slight variances in performance like this are common and most likely outside the range of a just noticeable difference for the average person.
Much like they did with the new iPad, Apple significantly improved the color filter performance† of the iPhone 5. Based on our experience, this type of improvement typically means that the display requires 20-30% more power to operate at the same brightness. Considering that the display is already a major source battery drain on the phone, this further underscores the engineering effort Apple made to keep battery life about the same as the 4S.
Let’s take a quick look at the changes in each of the red, green and blue color filters, starting with white, which is all three filters turned on:
Looking at the white spectrum of the iPhone 5, we see that the new color filters are very similar to those of the new iPad. Compared to the 4S, the peaks are slightly narrower, which improves color purity. In order to meet sRGB, they also moved to deeper reds and blues.
As with the new iPad, the biggest difference between the 4S and the 5 is in blue. Apple moved the peak to a deeper blue but, more importantly, they narrowed the filter so less green light leaks through. The green leakage causes blue to look a bit “aqua” on the 4S.
Retinal neuroscientist Bryan Jones looked at both displays under his stereo microscope earlier this week. His close-up shots really show off the difference in blue filters.
Apple again chose a slightly deeper wavelength of green which is less yellow and eliminated some of the blue leakage that had been muddying the green on the 4S.
The change here is subtle but as with the other filters, the peak is narrower, deeper in the red and leakage is reduced. One difference worth noting is that, while we are seeing less peak leakage in the red filter, there had been relatively broadband leakage across yellow, green and into blue that has been largely eliminated.
In all, it’s an exceptionally well-calibrated and accurate display for any kind of device, especially a smartphone. Apple has gone to great lengths to design a screen that brings the vibrancy of sRGB to the palm of your hand. † If you are not familiar with color filters or the inner-workings of LCDs in general this great live teardown by Bill Hammack is well worth watching: http://youtu.be/jiejNAUwcQ8