In the previous post, we learned what HDR is: a larger luminance range that requires more bits per component, new transfer functions to encode that luminance, and potentially some metadata. We can examine the work required to use it in a “standard” Linux desktop. By “standard”, I of course meant my desktop environment, which is GNOME on Fedora.

To do this, we’ll consider a single use-case and examine each portion of the stack, starting at the top and working our way down. The use-case is watching an HDR movie in GNOME’s video application, Totem. In this scenario, the application isn’t likely to tone-map its content as it has been created with HDR metadata the display itself can use to tone-map when necessary, but I will note where this could happen.

Let’s review the high-level requirements:

  • The Wayland display server (compositor) must determine the display capabilities (color primaries and white point, luminance, transfer function, bits per component, etc) in order to know what outputs are possible and/or optimal.

  • Client applications may want to know what content encoding the Wayland display server supports and maybe even what the optimal content encoding is for the display it is on (the native primaries, transfer function, bit depth, luminance capabilities, and so on)

  • Client applications need to express the transfer function, bit depth, color space, and any HDR metadata for its content (the “content encoding”) to the compositor. The compositor, in turn, needs to ensure the content from all the client applications are blended properly and output in a format the display can handle.

You might be familiar with text encoding. Adding HDR support is very similar to adding support for various text encoding formats when previously everything assumed content was encoded with ASCII. Instead of ASCII, the graphics stack largely assumes everything is sRGB.


At the top of the stack we have Totem, which provides the user interface and playback management features. It relies on GStreamer to deal with the video itself. It appears to use the playbin plugin, which GStreamer describes as an “everything-in-one” abstraction for a audio and video player.

Since Totem is all about wiring up a user interface to the GStreamer playbin plugin, GStreamer needs to be HDR-aware. Totem uses GTK and Clutter-GTK to create the user interface, so those libraries are also something we should examine.


Based on the GStreamer documentation and this talk by Edward Hervey all the necessary features appear to already be implemented for HDR video playback.

The GStreamer video library contains an HDR section. The APIs, available since 1.20, include interfaces for working with SMPTE ST 2086 (static metadata) and SMPTE 2094-40 (dynamic metadata). This metadata can be attached to a GstBuffer.

The GstVideoInfo structure includes colorimetry including the color primaries and transfer function. GstVideoInfo also includes the GstVideoFormatInfo structure which describes the pixel format, including bit depth. These contain all the information required to decode and convert the content. The GstVideoFrame ties the GstBuffer and GstVideoInfo together.

So GStreamer has all the content metadata we need. Next, we need to make sure it gets from the application, Totem, to the Wayland display server. The client-to-server interaction occurs in the EGL or Vulkan Window System Integration (WSI) APIs. These APIs are where OpenGL and Vulkan APIs are integrated into the particular operating system. This is where buffers are allocated for use within the graphics libraries and they include ways to provide the content encoding. As long as the metadata GStreamer extracts is passed to the relevant EGL or Vulkan API, we are all set. Mesa includes implementations of EGL and Vulkan WSI, so we will examine those after GTK.


In the section on Totem, we noted that it uses Clutter-GTK. The documentation is sparse and appears to assume the reader has an understanding of Clutter and why one would want to use it. Clutter appears to be a library for arranging a collection of 2-dimensional surfaces (“actors” in Clutter’s terms) in 3-dimensional space.

If we look at Clutter’s repository the README notes it is in “deep maintenance mode” and is intended to be replaced with GTK 4. Based on the commit log this is true, so we will look no further and focus on GTK 4.0.


GTK is a “widget toolkit”. It provides, either through a dependency or on its own, an application abstraction, event loop, rendering interfaces, methods to declare various user interface elements (buttons, text fields, etc), and other useful utilities for building a graphical user interface.

As of GTK 4, rendering is usually performed by OpenGL. As we’ll examine later, OpenGL APIs offer the necessary interfaces to handle HDR content, but GTK’s rendering model introduces a few issues. To understand the difficulties we need to understand how GTK builds the application window.

A Window into GTK

GTK documents its drawing model in some detail and it would best to read through it before proceeding.

One of the most relevant parts of the documentation is that

Each GTK toplevel window or dialog is associated with a windowing system surface. Child widgets such as buttons or entries don’t have their own surface; they use the surface of their toplevel”

GTK has each widget render itself, and then combines them all into a single surface which it shares with the Wayland display server to be combined with all the other client surfaces. We’ll look at the Wayland protocol in detail later, but what’s important to know right now is that the surface is where the content encoding should be stored.

This single surface that GTK produces, therefore, needs to be composed of widgets that all use the same content encoding. Unfortunately, GTK does not offer a way specify what content encoding to use for widgets it renders, nor does it provide a way for users to convey the content encoding they are using for their custom widgets. All content GTK produces on the application’s behalf, like buttons, menus, the window decorations, and so on, are rendered in an undefined color space with an undefined transfer function. In practice, this seems to be sRGB. All textures GTK creates are hard-coded to use 8 bits per component, including when it combines all the widgets into a single image.

This means, unfortunately, that at the moment there is no way to use GTK for an application interested in producing HDR content (video players, image viewers, content creation tools, etc).

Ways Forward

There are a few ways for GTK to work in a world where sRGB isn’t the only content. I can’t really say which approach is best, or even if this is an exhaustive list of options since my knowledge of GTK is only a few days old. Regardless, a good bit of work is necessary to make GTK HDR-ready.

Widgets with Content Encoding

One solution, if GTK wishes to remain in the business of blending images together, is to ensure each widget includes a way to express how the content it produces is encoded. GTK can then use this to ensure they are combined correctly. If, for example, sRGB content and PQ-encoded content were combined into a destination image without converting the sRGB content, the end result would be that the sRGB portions of the image would be extremely dark. This, of course, introduces a reasonable amount of complexity to GTK as it needs to convert between a potentially long list of formats in addition to introducing interfaces for specifying the content encoding everywhere it matters.


Wayland offers a way to create surfaces with a parent-child relationship called subsurfaces. Since the surface is where the content encoding is stored, GTK could use sub-surfaces to defer the blending of different content encoding to the Wayland display server. This would allow GTK to remain in its undefined, sRGB-ish world while allowing applications to handle modern content with other content encoding. However, I am told these are problematic as they cannot be clipped or transformed by GTK.

Require a single HDR Format

Rather than handling converting all the widgets to the same content encoding, GTK could specify one HDR-capable format it supports and require all widgets to use that if HDR has been requested for the application. A format like scRGB with half-precision 16-bit floating point numbers for each color component. This, however, has the downside that all HDR content needs to be converted from its native format to scRGB, blended with the other GTK widgets, and then converted back to some on-the-wire HDR format in the Wayland display server.

Even with this approach, GTK cannot blend the SDR content into HDR content without considering what luminance range to map SDR content to, which needs to correspond to the display brightness level the user has set.

Use Sub-surfaces Outside GTK

Applications can work around GTK not dealing with content encoding by not using GTK for anything other than the menus, buttons, and so on. In fact, this is how Firefox handles things; GTK is used for the “chrome” and the content is rendered to a Wayland sub-surface which Firefox manages itself and overlays on the GTK surface. This sub-surface can be properly configured for HDR and the compositor can handle blending it with GTK’s surface.

This, of course, isn’t ideal as the applications have to work around the toolkit rather than having the toolkit help them. However, it is a path forward worth mentioning.


Mesa provides the OpenGL implementation that clients like GTK use to render their content. To allocate storage for the output of that rendering, clients use the EGL or Vulkan WSI interfaces for which Mesa also provides implementations.


The full EGL standard is available online. Of particular interest to us are the interfaces for creating surfaces. eglCreatePlatformWindowSurface includes a list of attributes, including the EGL_GL_COLORSPACE attribute. As of EGL 1.5, only EGL_GL_COLORSPACE_SRGB (which defines both color primaries and a transfer function) and EGL_GL_COLORSPACE_LINEAR (presumably the sRGB primaries, linear light) are defined. However there are a number of extensions to EGL for additional color space attributes including:

Additionally, there is an extension to allow the EGL_GL_COLORSPACE attribute to be applied to eglCreateImage

These extensions make it possible to convey the color primaries and transfer function to the Wayland display server.

However, this is not currently done because the Wayland protocol has not yet accepted a way to send the content encoding. The proposed protocol has been under discussion (200+ comments) for a year. The details will be covered in the Wayland section below, but for now what’s important to know is that the protocol needs to define a message for the color space and transfer function that is sent from the client via Mesa when a surface is created in EGL.

Finally, there is an EGL extension for specifying the HDR metadata for a surface. By calling eglSurfaceAttrib and providing the attributes defined in EXT_surface_SMPTE2086_metadata a client can set the HDR metadata for the content. This is actually already partially wired up in Mesa. All that remains is for the Wayland-specific EGL code to send the HDR metadata to the Wayland display server. Again, there is no protocol for this at the moment.

While it is a dizzying array of extensions, EGL already includes all the metadata and APIs to send the content encoding from the client (Totem, by way of GStreamer) to the Wayland compositor.

Vulkan WSI

The Vulkan Window System Interface requires much less bouncing between extensions to determine how it all works.

For WSI, the content encoding is set when creating a swapchain by providing a VkSwapchainCreateInfoKHR structure. This includes the pixel format as well as the color space. Like EGL, the color space enumeration defines both the color primaries and the transfer function together. There is support for sRGB, Display-P3, BT2020, and more, all with linear and one or more transfer function options.

The HDR metadata can be provided by the client using vkSetHdrMetadataEXT, which applies to the swapchain. With those two calls, a client can describe the content encoding.

Like EGL, the WSI implementation in Mesa does not forward this content encoding to the Wayland compositor because there’s no protocol.

Ville Syrjälä created a proof-of-concept branch of Mesa back in 2017 to have Mesa use the Wayland protocol proposal (of the time), and I rebased it recently to “work” with the latest Wayland protocol proposal. It doesn’t actually work yet, but it is a good approximation of the work required, which is implementing the standard’s functions to call libwayland functions with the content encoding details.

The Wayland Protocol

As we touched on in the Mesa section, the Wayland protocol is still being discussed. The discussion is extensive, and I cannot do it justice in this post, but in this section I’ll outline the basics of what the protocol must include and approximately what that would look like.

Wayland is a client-server architecture. The clients are applications like the video player Totem. A Wayland display server handles client requests and notifies them of relevant events.

You can, at this point, probably guess what information the protocol needs to include. The client needs to inform the server of:

  • The color primaries (red, green, blue, and white point coordinates)

  • The transfer function used to encode the luminance.

  • HDR metadata when it is available - in the case of Totem playing an HDR movie, HDR metadata will be available. This metadata may remain the same for many frames (perhaps the whole movie), or it may change frame-by-frame.

Without this information, the Wayland display server cannot properly tone-map or blend the content, nor could it offload those tasks to dedicated GPU hardware or the display since they both need the same information.

The protocol includes an object that represents a rectangular area that can be displayed, the wl_surface. The surface is backed by a wl_buffer. The wl_buffer holds the content and the wl_surface describes the role of the content and how the server should interpret the contents of the wl_buffer, such as how it should be scaled or rotated. Since the wl_surface includes metadata about the content, it is probably the right place to include other details about how the server should interpret the buffer, namely the color primaries, transfer function, and HDR metadata. While the color primaries and transfer function aren’t likely to change over the lifetime of a surface, the HDR metadata can change - HDR10+ and Dolby Vision allow for frame-by-frame HDR metadata - so the protocol should account for that.

Additionally, the Wayland display server should be able to inform the clients of:

  • The native color primaries of the display. This will not be a standard color space such as sRGB.

  • Standard color spaces the display will accept (and internally convert to its native color space).

  • Transfer functions the display can decode.

  • Minimum luminance, maximum sustainable luminance, and peak (burst) luminance.

  • HDR metadata formats the display will accept.

In the case of Totem playing an HDR movie, it would not need to concern itself with tone-mapping and would not need to know about what displays it might be targeting. However, something like a video that generates content would benefit from targeting the display’s capabilities.


Mutter is, among other things, a Wayland display server. Once a protocol is in place, Mutter needs to implement it. To support HDR, Mutter needs to be able to:

  • Inform clients of display capabilities.

  • Act upon the content encoding provided by the clients to correctly convert all content to the same encoding and blend them all together into the desktop we know and love.

To inform clients of the display capabilities, Mutter can use the Extended Display Identification Data (EDID) from the kernel, which contains the display color primaries, supported HDR formats, and so on. It will be covered in detail in the kernel section below. The EDID is, in fact, already being used in Mutter so this will be a small addition to that. There is some trickiness around multi-monitor setups as clients don’t generally know which monitor they are being displayed on, but displays with differing pixel density have a similar challenge and Wayland handles that by providing events to the application when it enters a new display and the display content encoding could work the same way.

To act upon the client-provided content encoding, however, requires a bit more work.

Consolidating Existing Color Management

GNOME already has some color management capabilities. At the moment, they are split up in gnome-settings-daemon, colord, and Mutter.

colord is a system service that maintains a database of devices, color profiles, and the association between the two (including things like the default profile). At the moment, however, gnome-settings-daemon is responsible for querying colord and sets up the profile by calling Mutter D-Bus APIs.

Mutter needs to be aware of each display’s color profile in order transform the client content if necessary. The existing API for setting color profiles is also difficult to use because it acts on CRTC objects rather than displays. Some displays are composed of multiple panels tiled together and are therefore backed by several CRTCs. It makes more sense for Mutter to query colord itself rather than having gnome-settings-daemon do it. gnome-settings-daemon also handles the Night Light feature, which adjusts the color profile to shift the white point towards red to remove the blue light. Mutter needs to either handle the Night Light feature or, preferably, provide a “temperature” API and allow Mutter users to control when and how much to adjust the color temperature.

Support Converting Buffer Formats

There are a number of ways to store an image, but they generally fall into two categories. The first is to represent the red, green, and blue components, and that’s the way we’ve been discussing images in this blog post series.

Another way is to represent the luminance of a pixel, and then two color components for that same pixel. The third color component can be calculated using the lumanince and two known color components. This approach is commonly referred to as YUV although there are several flavors. This is a valuable approach because humans are more spatially sensitive to luminance than they are color which means it’s possible to produce a reasonably good-looking image even if you keep track of, say, every other pixel’s color. This is called chroma subsampling.

A lot of content, like films, are encoded using this approach, but at the moment Mutter does not support YUV formats. It would be convenient, since we’re adding a way for clients to communicate content encoding, to handle such formats. There has been some work in this area by Niels De Graef.

Compositing the Content

Once Mutter has knowledge of the content encoding of every surface, it can blend them together and convert them to the target encoding of the display. This involves:

  1. Convert YUV to RGB if necessary.

  2. Perform a color space transformation so that all surfaces are using the same color primaries and whitepoint.

  3. Removing the transfer function on surfaces so that Mutter is dealing with the optical (linear) values rather than the non-linear on-the-wire encoding. Adding two non-linear values together without accounting for the non-linearity results in incorrect luminance levels. You can try this with the following Python snippet:

    def gamma(u):
        """Apply the sRGB gamma definition to linear light levels"""
        return 1.055 * u**(1/24) - 0.055

    Consider adding linear light level 50 to linear light level 50 and then applying the transfer function versus adding the non-linear encoding of 50 to itself:

     >>> gamma(100)
     >>> gamma(50) + gamma(50)
  4. Blend the surfaces together. This becomes tricky with HDR since SDR does not have a clearly defined luminance range, it’s just how bright your display is set, but PQ-encoded content does have a well-defined luminance range. Mutter will need define the SDR luminance range and map that content into that well-defined range to ensure SDR content isn’t too dim or too bright.


With HDR, clients may provide surfaces that encode luminances beyond the capabilities of the target display. Displays account for this by tone-mapping out-of-range content into the display range. This is described in Section 5.4.1 of BT.2390. The important thing to know is that providing the display with out-of-range luminance levels will result in something that looks fine to most end users, but there may be a desire to carefully control what happens when this occurs.

Mutter would be responsible for implementing alternate tone-mapping if the display’s default behavior is unacceptable for the user. This would most likely be a concern for content creators.

The Kernel

We have arrived at the kernel, the final stop in this journey down the stack. The good news is that the basic requirements for HDR have already been met. We’ll touch on those and then look at additional features necessary for us to use certain hardware features.

The Bare Minimum

These are the bare minimum features for HDR and are already present in the kernel.

Display Capabilities

As we noted in the Mutter section, the EDID structure provided by a display is already available to userspace via the EDID connector property. Userspace can parse it for the chromaticity coordinates of the display primaries, the luminance, supported color spaces, and supported transfer functions. At the moment, many different projects implement parsing the EDID structure, but there have been some requests for a library to do so.

One thing worth noting is that EDID is quite old and has a replacement standard, DisplayID. Both standards are available from VESA for free, although you do need to provide your name and email address to access them. DisplayID has a Display Parameters block that includes luminance and chromaticity values, and the Display Interface Features block contains supported color space and transfer function combinations as well as bit depths. EDID included much of this information, but only as an extension documented in CTA-861 (currently at revision G). Recently CTA made this available for free, although you must provide an email and billing address to download it.

Displays can provide an EDID, DisplayID, or both. For the curious, the VESA E-DCC standard documents how these structures are accessed over I²C. How I²C is sent over, for example, DisplayPort is documented within the DisplayPort specification, which is only available to VESA members so the very curious will have to resort to reading the Linux kernel’s implementation if they aren’t members.

DisplayID can be embedded in the EDID structure as an extension so it may be available to userspace via the existing EDID connector property, but at this time there is not a dedicated kernel interface to retrieve a standalone DisplayID structure that I am aware of. The work to add one would be minimal, however, since it’s extremely similar to the EDID.

HDR Metadata

The kernel exposes a HDR_OUTPUT_METADATA connector property that userspace can use to send HDR metadata to the kernel and thus to the display.

At this time there is only one supported metadata type, which corresponds to the HDR metadata defined in CTA-861 in section 6.9 “Dynamic Range and Mastering InfoFrame”. This should be all that is required for HDR10 and HDR10+ content.

Bits Per Component

The max bpc standard connector property is a range property that allows the hardware driver to indicate valid bits per color component. Userspace can set this property so long as it is within the driver-provided range to control the output bit depth.

Nice-to-have Features

The bare minimum feature set is present for HDR content and allows us to query display capabilities, pass HDR metadata on to the display, and configure the bits-per-component sent to the display.

This leaves userspace to handle color space transformations, applying the transfer function’s inverse to get linear light values, blending, and re-encoding the results with a (perhaps different) transfer function. All that is possible, of course, but there are a number of hardware features for all those operations and it would be great to use them when they are there rather than performing the operations using expensive CPU or general purpose graphics shaders cycles.


Before we cover the encoding, decoding, color space transformations, and so on, it’s important to become familiar with planes. Planes hold images and descriptions of how those images should be blended into the final output image. These are analogous to a Wayland surface, which contains a buffer with the image data and metadata for the image.

Planes describe how they should be cropped, scaled, rotated, and blended with other planes to compose the final image sent to the display. These planes are backed by dedicated hardware that can efficiently do those operations. For the curious, the display engine section of Intel’s documentation describes some of the hardware plane’s capabilities. Of particular interest is the diagram around page 258 which illustrates the plane pipeline.

One or more planes are used to compose the image the CRTC scans out to the display.

Decoding, Color Space Transformations, Blending, and Encoding

Graphics hardware typically provides hardware dedicated to efficiently decode, transform, and re-encode images. Encoding are decoding are done with look-up tables that approximate the smooth curve of the desired transfer function by mapping encoded values to optical values and optical values to encoded values. For historical reasons, these are referred to as the de-gamma and gamma LUTs respectively.

The hardware-backed look-up tables for encoding and decoding content with an arbitrary transfer function are exposed to userspace as properties attached to CRTC objects and are also documented in the color management section of the KMS interface. The GAMMA_LUT and DEGAMMA_LUT properties and their respective lengths allow us to set arbitrary transfer function approximations. The number of look-up table entries is hardware-dependent so it may not be appropriate to use them in all cases.

Color space transformations are applied by using the CTM (colorspace transformation matrix) property defined in the color management interface. The CTM property lets userspace define a color transformation matrix to describe how to map from the source color space to the destination color space. When combined with a de-gamma LUT and gamma LUT, it can be used to efficiently decode, transform, and re-encode content for a particular color space.

Finally, the aforementioned planes include composition properties that allow userspace to control how planes are blended together.

However, these APIs have a few problems. The color management properties are attached to the CRTC, which is intended to abstract the display pipeline and is made up of planes. If the planes that make up the CRTC do not all have the same transfer function applied to them or use different color spaces, there is no way to express that each plane needs its own look-up table or color transformation matrix.

While it used to be reasonably safe to assume all the planes were the same (e.g. sRGB), with HDR this is no longer the case. There are likely going to be HDR planes and SDR planes that need to be blended together, so there needs to be a way to express the color management properties - the content encoding - on a plane-by-plane basis. In addition to the content encoding of each plane, we need to be able to express how HDR and SDR content should be blended. In the case of PQ-encoded HDR content, it is expressed in absolute luminance up to 10,000 nits. Userspace needs to express how the SDR luminance range maps into the HDR luminance range so the SDR encoding can be converted into HDR encoding.

Harry Wentland from AMD recently started a discussion on API changes for planes which looks to address these shortcomings.


All told, a good portion of the work necessary for basic HDR support is done or in progress. Some of the larger challenges are in the compositors as they need to line up client capabilities with hardware capabilities and make up any differences between the two.

Applications that use OpenGL or Vulkan directly don’t need to concern themselves with GTK’s lack of HDR support. However, there are a non-trivial handful of applications that would benefit from GTK supporting HDR content, like Totem, Eye of GNOME (the image viewer), and content creation tools.

Finally, there’s plenty of work on the kernel side to ensure userspace can make use of all the hardware available to it.