The next digital image revolution?

By Ryan Derousseau

It's hard to overstate the impact of digital photography. Over the last two decades, virtually every aspect of how we take, keep and share photos has been transformed. But despite the explosive innovation around digital picture-taking, the end result has actually changed very little. A photo is still a photo. And a poorly focused photo is still as bad as ever.

Ren Ng aims to fix that.

Ng is the founder of Lytro, a Mountain View, CA start-up that has been lauded by tech-obsessed first-adopters and photo enthusiasts alike. The product that has everyone so excited? A compact "plenoptic" digital camera. The camera, a short square-edged tube, uses a unique sensor resembling an insect's multi-faceted eye to capture "all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space." Pair the camera with Lytro's proprietary software, and the result is an image that can be focused and refocused after it's taken. Use Lytro's special Flash widget to post that photo on your blog or site and everyone who sees it can focus and refocus on any point in the image. In the words of Wired's John Bradley -- it's "addictive."

To learn just how addictive, just click on the image below and find out for yourself.


Once we finished clicking, we spoke to Ng, asking him to explain the camera's technology in simple terms and to describe what he sees as the next evolutionary step for his company's light field technology.

Tech it Up!: So how does the camera actually work?

Ng: Unlike traditional cameras, which only capture the color and intensity of light, the light field sensor also records the angle and direction of light.

With powerful software and sophisticated algorithms, the pictures are processed by the Lytro Light Field Engine to create living pictures that can be refocused after they're snapped, shifting the perspective view, and that can switch between 2D and 3D views. People can interact with pictures directly on the camera, as well as on the desktop, the Web and on mobile devices without having to download special software.

Tech it Up!: Living pictures?

Ng: Unlike traditional cameras, you can shoot now and focus later. Pictures can be focused days, weeks, even years after they're taken.
These days, most people take digital pictures not to print them out, but to share them online with their friends and family. Not only can you share these moments, but people can also interact with them. It brings an entirely new creative approach to visual storytelling.
Tech it Up!: How hard is it to unlock that creativity?
Ng: If you are interested in getting a picture with dramatic refocus and a strong sensation of discovery within the picture, you do need to experiment with putting multiple objects in the foreground and background. We're seeing tremendous creativity from our early customers already, and we are excited to see more. 
Creative Mode [an advanced setting on the camera] is great for shooting extreme macro shots, for dramatic portraiture or for amazing shots across large landscapes. We're seeing both professional photographers and serious hobbyists using Creative Mode in really fun ways.
Tech it Up!: So what's next? What else will light field technology let the photographer do?
Ng: By capturing the full light field, Lytro cameras provide an immersive 3D picture that goes beyond the conventional stereo 3D. Parallax and 3D functionality [which provides the viewer a chance to capture more of a scene, and shift the focus of that scene, like a gyroscope, adding a sense of movement] will be available later in 2012 -- any living picture taken now can be viewed on a 3D display when the software update is available.
Tech it Up!: And down the road? Where do you see the light field capability going?
Ng: Light field sensors will become increasingly more sophisticated, capturing even more light rays to be useful for more advanced scientific, medical, commercial or industrial applications. Light field videography is also possible, creating entirely new production capabilities for filmmakers.

How to get your hands on one

At this point, the Lytro camera is only available through the company's website - There are two versions, one with 8GB of memory for $399 and another with 16GB of memory for $499.