Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

Summary: A revolutionary new camera based on decades of research promises to turn digital imaging as we know it on its ear.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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Just four months after Lytro created a ton of buzz by promising to revolutionize digital imaging, the Silicon Valley-based startup has announced its first product, the Lytro Light Field Camera. The new camera, which is based on Lytro CEO and Founder Dr. Ren Ng's doctoral dissertation in computer science at Stanford, allows consumers to adjust the focus on their photos after they've already taken the shot. The basic concept is this: Rather than focusing on a single plane or object, the camera captures the entire light field of the scene, recording the color, luminosity (intensity), and vector direction of every ray of light. Armed with this multidimensional data, the camera can use computational algorithms to calculate what the image would look like if it had been focused at different distances. The result is what Lytro calls "living pictures" that can be refocused on the fly, after the fact. (The best way to grasp the concept is to take a look at Lytro's Living Picture Gallery and start clicking on the images in different spots to refocus them.)

The initial press release from back in June, though buzz-worthy, was met with plenty of skepticism (including a bit of my own), but now that there's a real product that's accessible to consumers (though steeply priced), they've got my attention. First there's the design: Rather than modeling the device on the expectations of a traditional camera (or any existing camera, for that matter), the designers at Lytro built the light field camera with simplicity and ease of use in mind. The camera uses a bright f/2.0, 8x optical zoom lens, and at just 1.61x1.61x4.41 inches in dimension and 8 ounces in weight, it looks more like a kaleidoscope or portable slide viewer than a camera. There are no mode dials to speak of -- in fact, controls consist of just two buttons (power and shutter), a touch-activated zoom slider, plus the 1.46-inch touchscreen LCD viewfinder. Second, because the camera depends on computational processing to achieve focus at different points on the image, rather than a complex set of lenses, it doesn't have the auto-focus mechanisms that slow down most digital cameras. This means no shutter lag (or, more accurately, auto-focus lag) to speak of and of course, less weight and complexity to the construction of the camera. Third, by capturing all available light in a scene with its f/2.0 lens, the Lytro camera inherently performs well in low light without a flash.

A few downsides: The internal Lithium Ion battery is not user replaceable, nor is memory expandable (the camera comes in 8GB and 16GB versions that hold 350 and 750 images respectively). And at $399 and $499 respectively, they're competing with some serious contenders for your digital camera dollars (think Canon PowerShot S95 and S100, entry-level dSLRs, or even some of the interchangeable lens compact cameras). But the biggest potential drawback (or the most exciting part, depending on how you look at it) is that the Lytro camera will require consumers to reimagine what they do with images. Sure it's cool that you can interact with images, focusing, and refocusing them. But at the end of the day, many consumers just want to snap their images and have them be in focus -- they don't want to have to fiddle with them. Most folks don't even want to bother with printing them, which is a bonus for Lytro since the two-dimensional resolution and image quality is limited. Lytro reps do a lot of dodging when asked what the 2D resolution of resulting images is, repeating some version of the following:

The Lytro is built for online sharing and interaction with pictures, not for large format printing. The living pictures you see in the Lytro Picture Gallery are representative of the image quality you can expect (but dependent on the screen resolution of your viewing device.) Asking about the pixel resolution of a light field camera system is not really relevant because pixels are very well defined. A pixel is color value and luminosity, and a light field camera's unit of capture is much more than that because each unit contains directional light ray data in addition to color and luminosity. Light field cameras capture megarays, not megapixels. The first Lytro captures 11 megarays. Our target resolution is HD at 1080p, but the full answer isn't completely straightforward. 2D projections in light field are rooted in computational photography, and 2D resolution can vary based on all sorts of factors including focal depth (refocus).

While valid, all that is probably said in an effort to redirect the question away from the answer which is that if you want to export to JPEG and print, you'll be able to choose a focus point and export at 1080x1080 pixels -- yep, a paltry 1.2 megapixels.

Still, as Lytro points out, the format is optimized for online sharing (which is what most people do with most images), not printing. But there's the rub. Unlike traditional cameras that perform in-camera processing to convert raw image files to compressed JPEG files that are ready to share and view straight from the camera, the Lytro requires a desktop application for for importing, processing, and interacting with the images from the camera, though the camera does process images internally to display on the LCD. (Note that the desktop app is currently Mac-only, but a Windows version is in development.) Furthermore, if you want to share the images with others online, you must first upload them to Lytro.com and then share them from there (via Facebook, Twitter, email links, etc.).

The biggest obstacle to widespread adoption, though, is price.  At $200 and under, where the competition is tricked out point-and-shooters with tiny sensors, you might be able to win a lot of hearts and minds with the truly compelling (and fun) technology and promise that Lytro holds (although its lack of video capability might be a deal-breaker). But the folks who are ready to plunk down $400 to $500 on a camera are looking at higher-end cameras with vastly better image quality that shoot HD video, and they might not be as easily won over by the ability to click around an image changing up focus.  Nevertheless, as the folks at Lytro keep pointing out, this is just the beginning.  There's a lot more potential in light-field technology -- think immersive 3D: the data for it is already captured in the light field; you just need to perform the appropriate calculations and processing. If Lytro can pull through the first generation with at least some success, it just might be poised at the leading edge of the next digital imaging revolution.

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Topic: Hardware

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19 comments
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  • Personally, I think these are cool

    As someone that has 5 DSLRs, I think these cameras are great for teaching and education. For the first time (within reason), you can take the same image and look at focused differently. I can see some pretty amazing things being done by people with Lytro's cameras.<br><br>Would love to see an f/1.4 lens and the ability to really play with DOF.
    Bruizer
    • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

      @Bruizer I just want a real lens on these puppies! Well, that, a RAW plug-in for photoshop and higher resolution as well as adjustable aperture...

      The first Digital Camera with replaceable lenses to feature this technology will own the market.

      Of course the only problem I've noticed is that DOF isn't good enough to truly refocus near an images horizon as the is when it does worst job of reshaping focus.
      slickjim
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    Pretty cool but why don't hey also have it set so everything is in focus. I can see a use for the artsy crowd but seeing the entire photo in focus would be nice.
    Test Subject
    • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

      @Test Subject It is called infinity and the lens has a zoom on it so at the short end of the focusing you could possibly achieve focusing to infinity but that wouldn't make for a very effective display of the technology.
      slickjim
      • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

        @Peter Perry
        I think @ Test Subject is expressing a common misunderstanding about the camera. It does one thing - allows you to focus at certain depths of field, after the pic is captured. A conventional camera can take a pretty sharp focus for everything in a pic - most field depths - are in focus at one time. @ Test wants to know why this camera cannot do what conventional cameras do, in addition to it's special function. It's a one function camera.
        ldfrmc
  • Copying Cupertino's business model?

    Very stiff prices, customer cannot change the battery, only (currently) works with Macs for import and export - who do they think they are, Apple Corp?
    FrederickLeeson
    • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

      @FrederickLeeson It works for me! I could use it upon release.
      slickjim
    • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

      @FrederickLeeson I agreed.
      <a href="http://www.oscar.gen.tr">oscar</a>
      webolico
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    Bravo Janice!<br>Someone with a cool head and knowledge about photography and cameras - lots of cameras. Your review is the best I've read of twenty about this "new" camera.<br><br>The slogan of a "living picture" and the company's aversion/disclaimer about resolution had me thinking "this is photography, but they are saying it has nothing to compare to photography."<br><br>When I heard Mr. Ng say in interviews that people I share photos with can "experience the whole story of the picture," my mind was made up.<br><br>I shoot video and photographs. I'm telling the story. Someone can re-interpret what I do by viewing/watching. They won't be 'mashing' it. And I certainly don't expect "friends" to show me how to focus.<br><br>Give this novelty a year, if it's still around. When it drops to $79, a reflection of the cost of materials, shape and utility, I'll buy one for my collection of novelty cameras.<br><br>I'm still impressed with Mr. Ng's dissertation, though.
    ldfrmc
  • Awesome

    Sounds very interesting.

    I've already written a macro which takes each part of the image, selects it as the focus point, pumps out those 1.2mpx ... and when finished a rectilinear pan of the whole, stitches them all together again ;-)
    jacksonjohn
    • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

      @johnfenjackson@... good, remember to send to me !!
      synyan
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    Interesting concept for photos, but a better use would be within the film/video world. If you can develop a technique such that as the user scans the field of vision on screen, that part of the screen takes the focus (just as the human eye does when surveying a scene), that would be something special. That becomes a user specific experience, and so would likely require a user centric technology. Nonetheless, for realism's sake, it would be interesting. Not that I don't understand and enjoy the cinematographers use (and art!) of using focus within a scene to control the narrative.
    rmillersbs
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    I don't think I'm ready to replace my CoolPix 995 just yet, but this is a cool technogadget for the right applications. Mostly, I think ldfrmc nailed it.
    MarkatFord
  • It's Blade Runner

    I've been reading about this theory for decades. I'm glad someone has finally actually built it.
    tomogden
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    Very impressive revolutionary product. I think this would be the future of the camera industry! Now the micro 4/3 or traditional dumb SLRs would not be necessary, as there is no need for the focusing mechanism! $400 would not be expensive for camera enthusiasts. I am really hoping that Sony would purchase this technology and embed it into its NEX cameras!!!!!!!!!!!!
    synyan
  • poor resolution

    I located a spot where I could play with the focus. I knew before I found this article that the resolution was not for me. At full screen, the focus was soft and not crisp at all. Now, I know it is only 1.2 megapixels... they'll have to increase the quality of the images by an exponential factor to get me to even consider buying one to play with, let alone replace my current cameras... someday, perhaps - just not today.<br>Great review... I do agree with you about the potential of the technology... perhaps surrogate travel of the initial role-playing games of old... "You walk into a room. You look around. You see a pouch on the table. [You focus on the table.] You open it and dump out the contents. [You focus from item to item to see what significant it might have...]"<br>Might very well be much fun. . . could work very well for real travel through a historic site... the Alamo comes to mind (the Rangers are ahead in extra innings... grin)
    They lost in 11 innings...
    <br><br>Until that time ... Earl J.
    Earl_J
  • Imagine using for 3d, and sensing eye focus ...

    ... to allow on-the-fly focusing, rather than the only one plane in focus and everything else is blurry.

    This is probably why animation has been more successful as 3d, because everything is in focus, whereas real stuff isn't, making it almost a waste of eye effort looking at anything else other that the currently focussed subject.
    Patanjali
  • RE: Lytro Light Field Camera lets you focus after taking your shot

    I don't believe it. I didn't believe it in 1957, and don't believe it now. It defies logic, as in: nothing can be sharper than the negative. I suppose, inasmuch as we don't have negatives anymore???.hmmm.
    Rowland Scherman
  • Lytro Light ield Camera

    I don't believe it. I didn't believe it in 1957, and don't believe it now. It defies logic, as in: nothing can be sharper than the negative. Yet, I suppose, inasmuch as we don't have negatives anymore???.hmmm.
    Rowland Scherman