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Lytro: What really makes it revolutionary

Lytro's camera is hot because of its light-field technology. But the company has actually rethought digital photography from the inside out.

Those cameras that everyone calls point-and-shoots? For years, they've involved a lot more than pointing and shooting. They give you different settings for portraits, low-light situations and sports shots. You can turn the flash on or off. You get to choose the resolution and image quality. You can capture in HDR. Most models let you burrow into endless manual settings if you want precise control. Did I mention you can record video?

Lytro cameras
Lytro's radical camera design. Lytro

And then there's Lytro's camera, which was revealed yesterday at a press event led by founder Ren Ng. We already knew that the Silicon Valley startup was working on the first commercial light-field camera--a model that captures light rays rather than flat images, and which lets you focus and refocus a photo after you've snapped it, either in the camera or on a PC. But it turns out that this technology--until now the stuff of lab experiments, not consumer products--is only one of the things that makes the Lytro strikingly different from anything you've seen before.

For one thing, it looks nothing like a garden-variety Canon, Nikon or Olympus camera--it's a sleek rectangular tube that you might mistake for an elegant, pocket-sized kaleidoscope. There's a square touchscreen on one end, and an 8X f/2 lens on the other. You can zoom by touching a strip on the top, and snap a photo by pushing a button.

And that's about it. You don't get any fancy settings or video features. There isn't even a flash. And the battery and memory are both sealed into the camera, not removable.

If you're in the market for a camera in the Lytro's price range--it starts at $399 for an 8GB model--and try to compare it to other models such as Canon's PowerShot S95, your head will explode. It simply doesn't care about the things that other cameras care about.

What the Lytro does remind me of, in certain respects, is the Flip video camera. Like that dearly-departed product, it's small and sleek and meant to succeed on the strength of how little it expects from the user, not how much control a serious photographer has over it. Both the Lytro and the Flip are less cameras than photographic appliances. They're true point-and-shoots. (Of course, the Flip was also a hit in part because it was a bargain by camcorder standards; the Lytro, at $399, isn't an impulse item.)

Polaroid's SX-70
Polaroid's 1972 breakthrough, the SX-70. Harry McCracken/CNET

As I attended Lytro's launch event yesterday and watched Ng unveil his invention, I also thought about a forty-year-old camera that strikes me as a spiritual granddaddy of the new camera: Polaroid's SX-70, the first instant camera that was truly simple to use. It too was basically a box (albeit one that unfolded) with a shutter button. You didn't have to worry about any of the things that previous Polaroids required you to think about, such as timing the photo and pulling off a messy, gooey cover to expose the picture at exactly the right time.

Like the Lytro, it had little in common with typical cameras of the era and was, in fact, barely recognizable as being a camera. If you loved the powerful-but-complex 35mm SLRs of the era, odds were pretty good that you wouldn't even understand what Polaroid was getting at.

As Victor K. McElheny wrote in Insisting on the Impossible, his 1998 biography of Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land:

Land intended Aladdin [the SX-70's code name] to terminate a succession of shortfalls and compromises and make photography more truly intuitive and impulsive by taking away manipulative barriers. To many amateur and professional photographers, who reveled in the variety and complexity of their equipment, Aladdin was no more welcome than earlier one-step systems. For the mass of photographers, however, instant photography was welcome. Time after time, they reached for the minimum of fuss that Aladdin represented.

Lytro is trying to get at something similar, I think. It doesn't want you to think about photography. It just wants you to look, push a button, and capture a memory. And because it's a light-field camera, you shouldn't even have to stop and check whether the picture was focused properly or not.

Ng and the rest of the Lytro team already deserve credit for thinking big--and I'm going to be fascinated to see how consumers, and other camera companies, react to this truly new device once it hits the market early next year.