When I walked up to Sony's new demo for its forthcoming Backlight Master Drive technology, a rep asked me to please not stand so close with my camera — the technology is still patent pending. So I took a step back in the darkened corner of the Sony booth, held the viewfinder to my eye and discovered that, actually, it was very hard to reconcile the images my camera was catching with the ridiculously high dynamic range picture I was seeing in front of my face. I'm not a great photographer or anything, but this was nuts.
HDR technology has been on the rise in the last few years. It's got a varying definition depending on who you ask, but essentially it's some combination of specially-produced content, software processing, and special hardware that in the end creates a picture with a very high difference between the darkest and lightest parts. (HDR is a common technique in photography, and it's usually accomplished by combining multiple exposures — ever notice how it makes your iPhone photos look VIVID?)
The new Sony technology is a combination of hardware and software that creates an HDR effect so intense that I've only ever really seen something like it in professional editing monitors used by Hollywood directors. But Sony wants to bring this to people's homes.
In technical terms, what Sony will tell me is that the Backlight Master Drive uses "more than a hundred" local dimming zones, as well as sophisticated power shifting, to achieve the absurdly high dynamic range. Local dimming zones allow different parts of the TV to have different amounts of power, aka brightness, in them. Power shifting tech allows you to take the power not being use in one zone and giving it to another.
According to Sony, the technology is capable of producing a brightness up to 4000 nits — current top flagship TV models top out at about 1000. The company also claims that Backlight Master Drive allows the prototypes to achieve the deep inky blackness usually reserved for OLED TVs — Sony doesn't use that display technology, opting instead for LED.
I can only speak to the results, which are striking. In one clip from the movie Annie, I was blinded by sunlight reflecting off water. Later, while watching a scene shot over the flashing lights of the Las Vegas strip, the deep darkness of the night is still visible behind the gaudy casinos. (As always, you should be wary of company-controlled demos. Actual results may vary.)
So yeah, despite the fact that I've been photographing TVs at CES for five years, I can't seem to get my camera to take pictures of these particular TVs that does them justice. Take my word for it?
So far the tech is just a demo. There's no word on when it might come to your home — but you can safely say it won't be until after Sony gets that patent.
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