How much color do displays really need? Part 4: Content Delivery

In the previous post in this series, I made the case for displays with hybrid, custom color gamuts as a great way to deliver coverage of Pointer’s gamut as well as the most important broadcast standards. We can build the hardware today to support these large color gamuts so its seems like a great solution but there is a catch: nobody is broadcasting or distributing these large color gamuts today. So, are we going to have to wait for broadcasters and content creators to slowly catchup, much like we did with HDTV?

What content delivery looks like today

Content is captured and viewed in a wide variety of gamuts across a range of different devices but only broadcast in one gamut.

Content is captured and viewed in a wide variety of gamuts across a range of different devices but only broadcast in one gamut.

Today, content creators are actually shooting in a wide variety of color spaces ranging from RAW to rec.709 to Adobe 1998. They are then forced to cram all of these different sources into the lowest common denominator rec.709 standard for broadcast or distribution. That same content is then displayed on devices with a range of different gamut capabilities from tablets that only cover about 70% of rec.709 to HDTVs that do meet the spec to OLED devices that oversaturate the content.

There’s a lot of diversity on both the capture and display sides and a clear bottleneck in the middle in the form of broadcast and distribution channels.

Adhering to broadcast standards is no longer sufficient to guarantee a good experience for consumers because there’s already too much diversity on the display side alone to rely on one standard. You just can’t be sure that consumers are actually looking at your content on a rec.709-capable device. We’re also losing a lot of the value that creators are capturing and could, in many cases, be delivered to end viewers who have the devices to show it.

How do we get around broadcast standards?

What content delivery looks like tomorrow

The first thing to note is that the internet is democratizing broadcast and distribution channels. With the web we can deliver whatever we want, whenever we want. Some players in the industry, notably Sony, are already doing this with 4K content. If there’s no content available and you believe in 4K resolution, you just deliver your own content directly to your customers.

Wide color gamut displays combined with good quality color management and the web as a broadcast platform will allow content to accurately be displayed in the correct color gamut.

Wide color gamut displays combined with good color management and the web as a broadcast platform will allow content to accurately be displayed in the original color gamut.

Still, this leaves us with some potential experience problems. If the right display gamut is not matched to the right content the results will be no different and that’s why color management is key. There are several companies working on color management solutions and certification programs for devices that will make it possible for wide color gamut displays to handle a variety of incoming gamuts. Using metadata, for example, a wide color gamut display can be alerted to the presence of Adobe RGB content and then remap that content on the fly to assure that it is displayed accurately on that specific panel.

With great color management, we can maximize the gamut on the display side and pull through the best possible gamut for the device we are looking at. In this way, we can deliver always accurate content that meets the designers intent, wether artistic or commercial.

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How much color gamut do displays really need? Part 3: Existing color gamut standards

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.

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

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

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

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.

How much color gamut do displays really need? Part 2: How we perceive color

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.

Color Perception

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 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.

Physical

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 4,000 surface colors found in nature as measured by Pointer in 1980 against the color gamut of the iPhone 5.

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?

Physiological

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

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?

Psychological

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

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:

Wide color gamut in movies

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.

Can your TV accurately display your favorite NFL team’s colors?

Over the weekend I saw this interesting tweet about color gamut and the NFL and I had to find out if it was true:

Could it be that something as simple as an NFL jersey is not within the color gamut of modern HDTVs? I mapped the Broncos team colors onto the CIE 1976 color space along with the HDTV color gamut standard, called rec.709. As you can see, the orange is right on the edge and the blue is indeed outside the gamut.

When we think of high color content, we think of action movies and video games, but this exemplifies how color performance affects everything we see on our TVs, even down to the jersey being worn by our favorite sports team. Luckily high color displays are on their way to fix this problem.  As you can see, the Bronco’s colors fall nicely within the much wider DCI-P3 color gamut.