Lytro unveils radical new camera design

The startup hopes light-field cameras, such as its $400 model, due in early 2012, will revolutionize photography by letting people focus photos after they're taken.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

Get ready for camera 3.0. Because next year, you might have to decide whether an 11-megaray sensor is enough for your new light-field camera.

Lytro, a Silicon Valley startup, today unveiled its radical new camera--also called the Lytro. With it, the company hopes to rewrite the rules with a technology called light-field photography, but the scale of the company's ambition is matched by the scale of its challenge.

On the outside, the Lytro looks different--a smooth, two-tone elongated box 4.4 inches long and 1.6 inches square. At one end is the lens and at the other is an LCD touch-screen display; along the sides are power and shutter buttons, a USB port, and a touch-sensitive strip to move the F2 lens through its 8X zoom range.

There are three models--the $399 cameras with "electric blue" and "graphite" exteriors whose 8GB of built-in memory is enough for about 350 shots and the "red hot," 16GB camera that can record 750 shots, Chief Executive Ren Ng told CNET in an interview today. U.S. residents can buy one now, through Lytro's Web site only, though they won't ship until the first quarter of 2012.

It's a striking industrial design for those accustomed to cameras festooned with buttons, protruding lenses, scroll wheels, and knobs. But the biggest differences are on the inside.

The three Lytro camera models sport a very different design on the outside, but their light-field technology inside is even more of a departure from conventional cameras.
The three Lytro camera models sport a very different design on the outside, but their light-field technology inside is even more of a departure from conventional cameras. Lytro

Conventional digital cameras use lenses to focus a subject so it's sharp on the image sensor. That means that for an in-focus part of the image, light from only one direction reaches the sensor. For light-field photography, though, light from multiple directions hits each patch of the sensor; the camera records this directional information, and after-the-shot computing converts it into something a human eye can understand.

The result is that a Lytro camera image is a 3D map of whatever was photographed, and that means people can literally decide what to focus on after they've taken the photo.

"Camera 1.0 was film. Camera 2.0 was digital," said Ng, who worked on the technology at Stanford University before founding Lytro, originally called Refocus Imaging, in 2006. "3.0 is a light-field camera that opens all these new possibilities for your picture taking."

Lytro's camera lets a single shot be refocused on different subjects.
Lytro's camera lets a single shot be refocused on different subjects. Eric Cheng

The biggest such possibility Ng points to is that an image becomes more dynamic. With the camera, a photographer looking at the screen can change the focus point. In one demonstration, the image shows the droplets of water on the window at one moment and the New York skyline from the same image at the next moment.

The interactivity is not limited to the camera. Software included on it lets people do the same operation on computers, with images hosted for free at Lytro's Web site, or embedded in Facebook pages. Only a Mac application will be available at launch, though a Windows version is on the way, and Lytro plans viewer apps for mobile phones as well.

Lytro believes the cameras will be be handy for focusing an image after it was taken; you can whip the camera out, turn it on, and snap the shot rapidly without worrying about waiting for an autofocus system to hunt around while the baby's first smile fades away.

"It's got an instant shutter. You press the button--bang! It takes the picture right away," Ng said. "We have that unique feature--shoot first, focus later. The camera doesn't have to physically focus while you take the shot."

The image is ready for refocusing operations immediately after it's taken, the company said. And though people can toy with the image on the 1.46-inch LCD display, they don't need to. That's good, given the limits of such a small view.

Another interesting feature: because the camera captures depth information, Lytro images can be viewed in 3D, something the company demonstrates with 3D TVs. The image information will be recorded for anyone who buys a Lytro camera, but the ability to view the 3D versions will come later with a future version of the company's software.

Watch this: The Lytro camera

One big challenge for the company will be convincing people that they want this interactivity.

After-the-fact fiddling with photos can be a drawback as well as an asset. Focusing 40 birthday party snapshots after the fact might get tedious for the photographer, not to mention for a more casual viewer flipping through views of the event. Some might enjoy exploring the new aesthetic domain of shiftable focus, but a lot of people taking snapshots just want it in focus in the first place.

The camera's image quality also remains to be seen. Another Silicon Valley startup, Foveon, tried to shift the digital photography paradigm with a new sensor design that produced what Ng would call camera 2.0 images. But Foveon struggled to convince the photography industry of the approach's merits and cost-effectiveness, and lensmaker Sigma ended up acquiring the company. Lytro will have to prove its way here, too.

Another challenge will be convincing people to buy something so different online. People like to handle cameras, and though they'll be able to try the refocusing effect online, they won't be able to get a feel for the camera itself. Lytro wouldn't comment on its retail strategy.

Then there's the vocabulary gap. The Lytro cameras gather 11 megarays worth of data, Ng said. "The sensor collects 11 million rays of light at every shot," he explained. That's a lot of rays, but it'll be awhile before anyone has an idea what kind of image quality that enables, the way people have at least a vague understanding of megapixels today for conventional cameras.

So there are challenges. But if the company can get a foothold, it can grow--and it's got Moore's Law on its side, because much of the challenge of light-field photography is in the image processing rather than the optics.

Updated 1:28 p.m. PT with further detail and photos. Updated 2:24 a.m. PT October 20 to note that the cameras can be purchased now, though shipping won't be until 2012.

The Lytro press event (photos)

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