Running the Gamut

Baylor researchers dramatically expand the number of colors a digital screen can display

On Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, the national offices of the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) are the nerve center of the world’s largest camera professionals union. For two Baylor professors, the headquarters were a crucible to put a vision to the test.

At stake was the opportunity to pursue an idea that could advance their industry — a new method for color processing and screen display of all kinds. Their audience was hypercritical by design. A select group of motion picture industry engineers, creatives and executives were assembled by Steven Poster, former president of ICG and the American Society of Cinematographers. The group was specifically chosen for their insight and vision.

Carbonara (L) and Korpi (R) in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC)
Carbonara (L) and Korpi (R) in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC)

For four decades, Corey Carbonara, Ph.D., and Michael Korpi, Ph.D., professors in Baylor’s Department of Film and Digital Media, have partnered as professors, collaborators and researchers at the forefront of new technologies in media. When a longtime professional colleague and friend approached Carbonara and Korpi with an idea bearing implications for the film industry, advertising, NASA, the medical field and more, they knew it had potential.

Nonetheless, presenting the concept to a high-level group of media professionals was an early make-or-break moment. Many others had failed in complicated efforts to expand the colors a screen can display to the point that their pitch could easily have been dismissed as yet another impossible idea.

When hours of questioning, suggestions and input were complete, Korpi, Carbonara and the colleague who entrusted them with a game-changing idea exited onto the streets in the heart of the film industry with pulses quickened.

“We had instructed them, ‘tell us why this won’t work,’” Korpi says. “But their response was the opposite.”

Carbonara says it was a surreal moment.

“It was like, ‘Pinch me. Did that really just happen?’” he says. “If you look at the credentials of the people in the room, you know. We really have something here.”

Primary Colors

For anyone whose work features the display of images on electronic screens, the colors available to them are dominated by the letters RGB: red, green and blue. They are the primary colors that visual displays can mix to get a variety of other colors, like a high-tech version of a child layering blue and yellow crayons to get the color green. Any film or television student learns about RGB as the color primaries that set the capabilities and boundaries of image display, and it has been that way for decades.

“In electronic displays, RGB has been so ingrained,” Korpi says. “For more than 30 years, in what I’ll call the recent past, there has been a string of different demos that have always fizzled out. The attitude tends to be, ‘Multi-primary has never gone anywhere, and RGB is the way it has to be done.’ Our approach changes that completely.”

That approach is called 6P — originally a reference to the addition of cyan, magenta and yellow to RGB — and dramatically expands the number of colors a digital screen can display. It has drawn the attention of the film industry and NASA, and it has beckoned leaders from various media sectors to join the research. Whereas RGB is limiting, a multi-primary approach expands the gamut of colors a screen can display.

Dylan Mathis, B.A. ’94, M.A. ’96, a NASA integration manager for operational programs, says photos from space fail to represent reality.

“One of the things that astronauts tell us is how beautiful our planet is from the International Space Station, but the images they see captured don’t do justice to what they see with the human eye,” Mathis says. “The idea of expanding the color palette to show the colors between the colors is exciting — to display images that better communicate the wonder of this beautiful planet.”

Images from space are a striking example, but nearly all digitally captured images are comprised of data that contains more colors than most screens are able to display. From the planet to flesh tones and images captured to images created, more primaries would allow for more vivid images.

“As an artist, would you rather have 24 crayons, 64 or 528? That’s why this evolution is important,” Carbonara says.

6P is a technological approach and a system. Its name is a clue to industry professionals that three primaries are no longer the limit. It is also a company — 6P Color Inc. — created through Baylor’s Lab to Market Collaborative (L2M) with more than $2.5 million in research funding to Baylor. As described by L2M, “6P will allow the world’s first retro-compatible multi-primary color capture, processing, distribution and display system to advance the ability of every digital device on the planet to produce a wider color gamut … closer than ever before to natural viewability of the human eye.”

Relationships on the Cutting Edge

The concept now known as 6P was the brainchild of Baylor senior research scientist Gary Mandle, whose relationship with Carbonara dates back to 1985 when both began careers at Sony. Carbonara was responsible for the company’s high-definition (HD) initiative, later selling the first HD camera system in the U.S. Meanwhile, Mandle worked on the camera design. After Carbonara’s return to the Baylor faculty in 1987, he and Mandle connected at regular intervals at industry meetings or through their shared membership in the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).

The idea took form one night as Mandle lay in bed awake, and the thought intrigued him enough to seek outside help. As an industry veteran, Mandle worried that if he took it to a large organization, “it would sit up on a shelf somewhere.” His father made an alternative suggestion: Seek a research university. While his physical proximity to Stanford University might have made a natural fit, Baylor was his choice.

“When I thought about approaching a university with the idea, Baylor was immediately my first choice,” Mandle says. “I’ve known Corey for a long time, and there is a real trust there. Once we talked, I didn’t need to look anywhere else. And then Mike Korpi. You’re talking about a great team with great connections and expertise. They can put a team together like a puzzle that perfectly fits.”

Industry connections and cutting-edge technology have been a hallmark of Baylor’s film and digital media (FDM) department since the early days of Korpi and Carbonara’s tenures in the 1980s, when FDM was known as the telecommunications division of Baylor’s Department of Communications. In a media environment dominated by the U.S. coasts, Baylor’s cutting-edge focus has been distinctive and an advantage.

“We’re in Waco, Texas, competing with schools like New York University, USC and UCLA,” Carbonara says. “When I came to work with Mike for the first time, he had a great concept that I give him all the credit for. We both had a love for the cutting edge, and that’s one area that you can level the playing field. We’ve been blessed to build credibility that has opened doors for collaboration and for our students.”

Their long-standing industry partnerships led to relationships of trust. Their connections to SMPTE placed Baylor at the forefront of change as Carbonara served on the organization’s first HD committee in 1983. When nonlinear editing grew into a disruptive force in the late 1980s and 1990s, Korpi and Carbonara participated in its development. On and off campus, those connections provided accelerated educational opportunities and opened doors to Baylor students for substantive industry positions.

Baylor’s connections also pay dividends for 6P. When Mandle shared his idea in 2018, the reaction was encouraging. Carbonara was enthused and invited Mandle to pursue the vision together. From that moment, the technology’s development has accelerated at a pace that far exceeds what any of them expected.

Glass to Glass Enhancement

6P begs a question both simple and complex: How does it expand beyond three color primaries where so many others have fallen short?

Complexity vexed most prior attempts at a multi-primary system. RGB provides a simple and proven system that accounts for the relationships between the colors displayed. Once a white balance is set, the system reads the colors and needs only one combination of red, green and blue to display each pixel.

However, when a fourth primary is added, the possible combinations of primaries for any particular pixel expands. Each additional primary multiplies the number of color combinations for each pixel to display.

Line Chart

Two key ideas provide insight into the process. The first is that HD cameras capture a greater color palette than most screens are able to fully display. While the data is there, the files are formatted to fit your screen. Korpi describes it as being “squished down” based on the display’s limitations.

A complementary path to understanding 6P can be found in the color gamut (pictured above). Shaped like a thumbnail, it contains colors visible to the human eye. Within that gamut, only a subset can be displayed on screen. In the case of RGB, the primaries form a triangle that limits the range of visible colors to a relatively small portion of the gamut. An image from space might display blue water, but the screen is unable to process the complex shading of cyan or sea green.

As 6P moves past three primaries to six, it expands the field of available colors from the shape of a triangle to a hexagon, thus decoding more colors in a bigger slice of the pie. The system has grown beyond its name throughout numerous iterations, potentially allowing color display at the far ranges of the color gamut unlimited by any number of primaries.

“When you add a fourth, fifth and sixth primary, the number of possible solutions grows dramatically," Korpi says. “It’s a nontrivial problem. RGB provides one color solution for each pixel. Add one or more primaries and, in theory, you go from one solution to infinite solutions per pixel — in practice, from one to many millions. The processing of that and the selection of the best solution has to happen somewhere.”

That processing takes place within the 6P system. To get there, they have drawn on color science and the development of algorithms, matrices and look-up tables, as well as a proprietary blend of something Korpi calls “magic” and Carbonara calls “secret sauce.” It is born from collaboration with the team they’ve developed: Mandle, Poster, longtime Kodak color scientist Mitch Bogdanowicz and former Fox TV executive Jim DeFilippis. Carbonara and Korpi have long been friends with DeFilippis and Poster, the legendary cinematographer who set up their meeting at ICG. Others in the film, television and display industries have provided additional support.

“There’s always been what we call a ‘glass to glass’ problem in the industry, from capture to final display,” DeFilippis says. “You have people who are really good about displays, and people who are really good about cameras, but no notion of what comes in between. That’s what impressed me about 6P when they came to me in 2019. They thought about it all. It’s a systems approach.”

While systemic change always takes time — the television’s long transition to HD is one example — Carbonara and Korpi see benefits to their approach and future implementation. Because they use previously unused data already captured by cameras, the system is retro-compatible. 

“Material shot in RGB will not be obsolete,” DeFilippis says. “It will be enhanced.”

From Lab to Market

6P’s further growth will take place within the framework of 6P Color Inc., the company formed to develop and commercialize the technology through Baylor’s Lab to Market Collaborative (L2M). Housed within Baylor’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research, L2M is a joint effort between Baylor, Blueprints Lab and venture capital firm Waco Ventures to advance technologies from the idea phase into the marketplace, where they can have real-world impact. 6P Color Inc. was the first such company formed through L2M.

“Baylor has been so supportive from the provost’s office to Lab to Market,” Carbonara says. “The timing — with Baylor’s research focus and Illuminate initiative — is amazing. When you look at the people making this happen, it’s exciting to see how Baylor is fostering research opportunities and capturing intellectual property in ways that will lead to even more research.”

The $2.5 million in research funding acquired through the Lab to Market process supports Baylor’s research growth as R1 funding, thus advancing Baylor’s future vision as it funds 6P Color Inc. The company provides an example of the Lab to Market vision: an ecosystem in which University research, product development and commercialization work in concert to enable each partner in the process to do what they do best.

Baylor Assistant Vice Provost for Research, Technology Commercialization and Industry Engagement Todd Buchs says technology commercialization is not the University’s core.

“But we want to see that take place, because every inventor wants to see their invention make a difference. That can be a difficult process if you’re not skilled in that, and that’s why we have teammates to advance disruptive technologies like 6P,” Buchs says.

6P Color Inc. will not create screens or devices but rather license the technology with royalties benefitting future Baylor research. Waco Ventures operating partner and 6P Color Inc. chairman Brian Woods says it is appropriate that this is the first company formed through Baylor L2M.

“It’s a rare opportunity to have a product that is going to affect most humans on the planet,” Woods says. “We’re at this point because of alignment throughout the Lab to Market process where no one in the value chain is too controlling. The gentlemen working on 6P are a low-ego, high-output culture. When you have that, you can get a lot done fast.”

As 6P technology has evolved, external organizations have either remained or become interested in their work. SMPTE and NASA sponsored a June event at the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), showcasing the technology to industry professionals and media. NASA formed an umbrella Space Act Agreement with the University to facilitate collaboration and information sharing with multi-primary color research being one agreement within that umbrella.

“NASA will provide the researchers with unique imagery to see how it works within the systems they’re developing,” Mathis says.

As the project has advanced, Carbonara and Korpi see a providential hand in the timing. They also feel a sense of satisfaction that comes from decades of focus at the intersection of education, cutting edge technology and industry relationships galvanizing to advance their field in a missional manner.

“Ultimately, we want to display everything a human being can see,” Korpi says. “God made our eyes see that way for a reason. Our displays should show the same thing.” ν