Lytro is making noise with its "light field" camera innovations. The company is going to start selling cameras later this year that essentially take the worry out of focusing.
Unlike conventional cameras, which can only record a scene in two dimensions, light-field cameras can capture all the light traveling in every direction through a scene in four dimensions. The cameras can also create interactive, living pictures that can be focused and refocused.
Lytro cameras rely on a light-field sensor that captures the color, intensity and direction of every light ray. Software within the camera then processes the picture into a light-field picture file. Some are calling it the most significant evolution in photography since the transition from film to digital in 1988.
"Lytro's breakthrough technology will make conventional digital cameras obsolete. It has to be seen to be believed," said investor Marc Andreessen, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Lytro has raised approximately $50 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, NEA and K9 Ventures, along with individual investors.
The digital still-camera market is large and growing with $38.3 billion in worldwide revenue in 2010 and expectations it will increase to $43.5 billion by 2015, according to In-Stat. Visual storytelling is universal, with 60 billion photos shared on Facebook in 2010, and projected to reach 100 billion by this summer.
"This is a heck of a way to revitalize the camera market because smartphones have been replacing cameras for a lot of people. This kind of technology holds the line so there isn't quite so much erosion from phones," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
"I see two out of three reporters using their phones to take pictures today. But something like this could switch it back because it requires a lot of processing power, probably much more headroom than a phone is likely to provide near-term. This is a great idea."
Full Light Possibilities
Some of the cooler features in Lytro cameras include the ability to shoot now and focus later. That means people will no longer be disappointed by a picture that turns out focused on the wrong subject, such as the wall instead of a child's smile. And since the camera doesn't focus before a photo is taken, people will no longer miss important moments due to the conventional delay of the lens autofocusing as you press the shutter button.
By using all the available light in a scene, light-field cameras can capture better pictures in remarkably low light environments without a flash. And using the full light field, Lytro cameras provide an immersive 3D picture that goes beyond the conventional stereo 3D by, for example, controlling the perspective of a scene.
Light-field science and computational photography are nothing new. Both have been extensively researched for more than a century in academic environments. Light-field science was the subject of Dr. Ren Ng's dissertation in computer science at Stanford, which was awarded the internationally recognized ACM Dissertation Award in 2007. Ng is the founder of Lytro.
Ng's research focused on miniaturizing a roomful of a hundred cameras plugged in to a supercomputer in a lab. This year, the Lytro team will complete the job of taking light fields out of the lab and making them available in the form of a consumer light-field camera.