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How Lytro can save cameras

The radical Lytro camera is immature and needs refinement, but CNET Reviews Editor in Chief Lindsey Turrentine wants Lytro to succeed for the health of the camera industry.

If the camera industry doesn't change quickly, it will die.

Sound like an overstatement? Maybe. But canaries are gasping from deep in this coal mine: operations like Kodak, with a history deep in the print-processing business, were the first to go.

Smart camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon will continue to sell--and delight photographers with--high-end dSLR cameras, especially as full-frame digital cameras become more and more accessible to those of us (like me) who fancy ourselves decent photographers but have no formal photo training.

As anyone with a high-end smartphone knows, however, the point-and-shoot can't compete for long with the likes of the iPhone 4S camera, especially considering the creative outlet apps extend to the smartphone camera.

Thanks to fantastic post-production software (Instagram, Tilt Shift Gen) and built-in social outlets (Facebook, Twitter, Path), smartphone camera dominance is a no-brainer. (Want some super-dry reading? Canon's Q4 2011 earnings call explains that the company hit its dLSR earnings targets, but not for point-and-shoots.)

Enter Lytro. The light-field camera, as the company calls it, radically rethinks the way a camera works. Instead of leaning on the traditional sensor designs in other digital imaging devices and cameras, the Lytro takes in light from all directions and tracks the direction in which the light was moving during the shot. It then uses software to redraw the photo to let you focus once the photo is off the camera. The science is new, the form factor is new, and it's all very exciting.

The resulting Lytro images (that's one of mine at the top of the story--feel free to play around with it) have a wow factor unparalleled by still photographs, and the hardware demands attention. My 10 minutes on the street with this puppy a few days ago turned so many heads I probably should've put on some lip gloss first, and there is something indescribably fascinating about the ability to interact with a photo online.

When I posted my photo on Facebook, my friends responded with surprising enthusiasm. "How on earth does it work!?" they asked. Even my less technical and photo-oriented friends join in, almost as if they felt some ownership over the image after playing with it.

There is something mesmerizing about the overly sharp, gritty square images the Lytro spits out over a USB cable (albeit slowly, and only through proprietary Lytro software) to your computer.

Don't get too excited yet. Despite some praise from around the Web (Mashable overenthusiastically dubs the camera "The most social camera ever made"), most serious critics--including CNET's own reviewer Josh Goldman--agree that the Lytro isn't really that great. Not yet, at least. Add Mac-only software and dicey photo quality to the fact that the photos can only live on your hard drive or Lytro's own Web site, and you have an underwhelming experience. Worse, Lytro's self-proclaimed "living photos" can only be altered post-production by smashing them into a flat JPEG.

The startlingly small, periscope-like Lytro turns heads. Josh Miller/CNET

I personally wouldn't buy a Lytro now. I can't imagine how it would fit into my photography day. The $399 Lytro can't replace a high-end SLR--the photos are too inflexible and not clear enough--and I have a much easier time editing and sharing point-and-shoot images from my phone. I wouldn't pack a Lytro to take on vacation; it's really more a fun photography parlor trick for the time being, and an awkward third wheel in the camera bag.

But I am unabashedly rooting for Lytro to stay afloat and work on its technology until it creates a product that does truly revolutionize the camera industry. With the right effort, I think Lytro could do what Apple did with the iPad: build a device that you didn't know you needed. The right Lytro at the right price and with the right post-production flexibility could fill the gaping hole created by the cratering point-and-shoot camera.

How will Lytro succeed? First, Lytro needs to fix the camera's image quality issues. That's a given. But I'm convinced that creative minds can do even more with Lytro. The company is already talking about future versions of its software that will let you pan and shift the camera's perspective, for instance.

Or imagine if you could work in your post-production software to change the color, perspective, and focus in a Lytro living photo? Or if other photographers could play with your photo online to create camera angles and perspectives you might not have thought of yet, then repost the resulting photo on Flickr or Twitter? What if two photographers could collaborate live on a photo (Think Google Docs for images)?

Or, even more radical: Lytro could open up its software to let inventors create new interactive experiences with Lytro photos. After all, Lytro has already captured all the light data and saved it. Software engineers and artists at startups everywhere could reimagine what to do with that light--new ways to share Lytro-captured images, maybe even new hardware to manipulate them.

A great new camera category still has a place in the photography ecosystem, and the camera industry is going to need a dark-horse innovator. If Lytro can stay in business long enough by selling enough first-gen Lytros, I see a future in which wedding photographers everywhere offer a living photo option in their wedding picture packages.