Watching Gran Turismo's boss mess around in photo mode makes for a great demo of 4K and HDR. Who knew?
Yesterday I attended a PlayStation event in central London that celebrated the imminent launch of the PS4 Pro hardware. There was a brief stage presentation and hands-on with PS4 Pro games new and old, but the highlight was an optional and informal Q&A session with Kazunori Yamauchi, the boss of the Gran Turismo series.
Yamauchi is a natural face for Sony to trot out when revealing new hardware. Gran Turismo has long been seen as a technical powerhouse, and it'll no doubt be an important title for PS4 Pro's fortunes. Where he chooses to focus with his answers is more enlightening than many other developer chatter about the machine.
"Yamauchi is grinning broadly in the translation-necessitated downtime between questions as he carefully parks a Ferrari on a narrow Italian street. I laugh to myself at how ludicrous this mini-junket is. He seems enamoured with this feature of his game, and it's not even really all-new."
But first: let's talk about Yamauchi. He's charming and endearing. He seems to wear a sort of impassive expression most of the time but appears to absolutely light up when he talks about cars. This is a Q&A session, but Yamauchi spends almost all of it in Gran Turismo Sport's photo mode, tinkering and taking photos while he talks.
That photo mode somehow accidentally becomes one of the best demos for PS4 Pro I've seen. It's all thanks to a mistake, but it was a fruitful little error - it proved a point.
Rather than photos of a race, Yaamauchi takes photos of cars set against iconic backdrops. The team call this 'Scapes', and the backdrops are gorgeous. You can essentially take these still images and plop the game's in-game car models down into them. The game works some lighting magic to make them fit in with the photos, and thus you can create startlingly lifelike photos of GT's supercars in improbable locations.
Yamauchi is grinning broadly in the translation-necessitated downtime between questions as he carefully parks a Ferrari on a narrow Italian street. I laugh to myself at how ludicrous this mini-junket is. He seems enamoured with this feature of his game, and it's not even really all-new. I like to imagine he gets home from work and just sits and tinkers and photographs his digital cars, grinning like a schoolkid. Like I said: endearing. This man loves his work.
His team generally seems to be just as passionate: throughout the presentation an excited engineer repeatedly dashes up to whisper things to Yamauchi, thus adding his own addendums to the director's talk on technical matters.
Once the car is placed down fully, the game bakes lighting and whatever else it needs to do and suddenly the reflection of the sun that's on other real cars in the original image is matched on the in-game model. This whole thing is pretty impressive in itself but is also entirely possible on the regular PS4. The truly interesting stuff comes with a mistake.
Satisfied with his composition, Yamauchi renders out the photo. It takes a couple of photos, but there it pops: and it looks worse. Blown out. The headlights of the virtual car flare on the virtual camera lens. The earlier-mentioned engineer dashes up to the stage and whispers in Yamauchi's ear. "Ahh!" he exclaims. He'd set the photo to export out as a JPG. A JPG isn't HDR. He apologises.
This is the moment of truth. I've seen it a few times before, but Yamauchi pressing back and then rendering the same photo out in a HDR compatible format turns out to be one of the best PS4 Pro demos you could hope for: two still images, one after the other. Identical, but the difference is truly night and day. It's stark.
"This is a theme of the GT Sport presentation: HDR is more of a game-changer than 4K. Throughout the presentation debug settings are used to flick things on and off - but the switch is always about HDR versus standard colour rather than 1080p versus the 4K image."
"About 10% of the body colours of certain cars aren't contained within the standard colour space range," Yamauchi later excitedly explains. He pulls up a McClaren to demonstrate that and says that parts of its bodywork don't fit within the colour range offered by sRGB. With HDR white colour, those details finally pop.
In general this is a theme of the GT Sport presentation: HDR is more of a game-changer than 4K. The regular PS4 will support HDR, yes, but Sony hope you'll go out and buy a new Sony TV as much as they hope you'll buy a PS4 Pro. GT Sport will run on PS4 Pro at 1800p with the PS4 Pro's built-in checkerboard upscaling doing the rest to get the image up to 4K. The focus is elsewhere than resolution: It's on HDR and on the frame rate, which will be 60fps.
Throughout the presentation debug settings are used to flick things on and off - but the switch is always about HDR versus standard colour rather than 1080p versus the 4K image. HDR is the game-changer. Once you've experienced it, Yamauchi enthuses, it's hard to go back.
True 4K images are of course better because they're crisper and cleaner, but HDR actually changes things. Earlier on in the day a representative from Sony's TV business stands on stage and tells us that it's the biggest detail jump since black and white to colour - I'm not sure I buy that, but I can actually see the argument.
The resolution and performance bump do of course show off PS4 Pro's power but for me, everything only really truly pops when combined with HDR. At that point PS4 Pro feel quite a bit more powerful than its specifications would have you believe. HDR makes a difference. In a game like GT, with street lamps and bright-coloured supercars, the difference is enormous. Yamauchi's idle tinkering with photo mode while taking questions was a fantastic demonstration of that.