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Google acquires some Lytro folks as the company shutters

Last week's rumors about it acquiring the company aren't true, but Lytro's winding down and some of its employees are heading to Google.

It looks like Google has not acquired Lytro as rumored last week. However, it is true that the company has folded and some of its employees indeed are headed to Google, which the latter confirmed via email. A brief farewell message on Lytro's blog Tuesday read, in part, 

It has been an honor and a pleasure to contribute to the cinema and Virtual Reality communities, but starting today we will not be taking on new productions or providing professional services as we prepare to wind down the company.

Lytro became prominent for its light-field technology camera -- the original shoot-now-focus-later camera which optically captures an entire scene with infinite depth of field (DoF) using a kind of reverse ray tracing. The capability was subsequently mimicked using multishot modes in cameras  (by Panasonic's Post Focus, for instance) and phones (such as the Galaxy S5). The possible acquisition was reported in TechCrunch.

While Google didn't acquire the company, it's not out of the realm of possibility that it did acquire some of its assets, likely 59 light-field and imaging patents. That infinite DoF capability can be instrumental for creating VR and mixed-reality content because for a real-life experience you're constantly changing the view and focus area while you're immersed. 

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When we reviewed it, we thought the original Lytro camera was an overpriced one-trick-pony.

Josh Miller

Lytro launched as a camera company. When we reviewed the original Lytro Light Field Camera in 2012 we found it intriguing, but not quite worth the $400 investment for a meh camera. Its one trick seemed to solve a problem -- post-shot focusing -- that not many people had, and that required processing on a computer. People wanted smarter automatic focus, not more work. And phones eventually solved that problem. Even worse, the software only worked on Windows at launch.

After a few updates to make it more salable, Lytro switched audiences with the Illum. For studio photographers who usually shoot straight into a computer, the post-processing didn't have the same ick factor. Plus, the Illum had a somewhat more traditional camera design. But even with its 40-"megaray" resolution and 30-250mm-equivalent lens it's still a niche product. (You can still buy it on Amazon, which amusingly compares it to the Sigma DP Quattro line, a completely different camera that happens to have a similarly shaped body.)

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The Lytro Illum, circa 2015

Sarah Tew/CNET

So the company pivoted again, this time to big-budget Hollywood wallets with the Lytro Cinema and Lytro Immerge. And it's that work, for 3D and visual effects technology, that now makes it attractive. Google recently described its experiments with light-field technology for use in AR and VR (it released a demo on SteamVR), and you'll note that the company did these trials with a modified GoPro Odyssey Jump rig, not a Lytro Cinema Camera. 

Lytro was founded in 2006 as Refocus Imaging by Ren Ng and as a startup raised over $200 million in funding, with the company's value somewhere around $360 million. 

Update, March 27: Added confirmation that Lytro has folded and Google's absorbing some of its employees.