Just four months after announcing its intention to transform photography, camera startup Lytro has announced its first product. The company's 'light field camera' may not look or work like anything currently on the market but, with an asking price starting at $399, it's clear that the company can conform to conventional expectations. Having given us an interview about the technology earlier this year, Founder and CEO Ren Ng was kind enough to show us the camera and give us an idea of what to expect.
Ng has developed the company from the research he conducted at Stanford University. He's understandably upbeat about the launch of his first product and - unusually for a researcher-turned-entrepreneur - has a polished, soundbite-friendly way of explaining it.
What does Camera 3.0 look like?
'We worked really hard to create an iconic design that really conveys the idea that this is "camera 3.0",' he says: 'We really wanted, in the industrial design, for form to follow function.' And, while we've not used it enough to say how functional its form is, the result is a device that, unlike many cameras, doesn't have any film-era roots to its design.
The camera itself is a square prism in shape, around 11cm (4.4") long and around 4cm (1.6") square. Around two thirds of its length is bare anodized aluminum, which houses a 35-280mm equivalent, constant F2 lens. The rest of its length is coated in a soft, light gray rubber, in which you'll find the camera's three physical controls - the power switch, a shutter button and a slider that you stroke to zoom the lens in and out. All other interaction with the camera is conducted via the small, 128x128 pixel square touch screen that covers the rear face of the device.
Two versions will be available - an 8Gb model that comes in gray ('Graphite') or blue ('Electric Blue') or a more expensive 'Red-Hot' 16Gb version ($499). The smaller versions will be able to record around 350 images, with the larger version finding space for nearer 750. The colorful aluminum and choice of capacities is immediately redolent of Apple products, and it's an association that presents itself at several points during our meeting.
What is a light field camera?
Just to recap, the Light Field Camera captures light rather differently than a conventional camera. It features an array of microlenses set a short distance in front of the sensor. Instead of focusing light down into a single pixel as they would in a conventional camera, these are designed to split the information across multiple pixels, depending on the angle from which they've arrived.
Ng takes up the point: 'The microlenses separate the rays of light just before it hits the sensor. It records that information so that it retains all the directional information. We can then imagine if the sensor was nearer or further back from the subject, which is effectively what focusing is, then re-calculate where those rays would have been projected to.'
This technique not only allows images to be recalculated with different focus points, it also means the lens of the camera doesn't need to be focused on a single point. And this has a great advantage for a point-and-shoot camera, Ng explains: 'We don't have to focus when you take the shot. There's no moving motors, which allows an instant shutter.'
Simple to the core
The point-and-shoot simplicity continues to the camera's interface, and again there's a hint of Apple about its simple touch-screen approach. Each time an image is taken, the camera animates its motion off to the left of the screen. So, without a hint from Dr. Ng, it seemed obvious that swiping from left to right would bring it back onto the screen (and it does). The rest of the interface is similarly straight forward - tapping a point on the screen refocuses an image, double-tapping zooms in, just as the images on the company's website do.
'Cameras are still really complex. Even simple ones have all sorts of modes and dials. We have two buttons, instant on and instant shutter - it's a device for capturing the moment, which is always fleeting,' he says.
Unlike most contemporary compacts, the battery and memory are built-in and not user replaceable - the camera both charges and connects via a micro USB connector. Upon connecting, the full light field images (analogous to Raw files) are then downloaded to your computer. The versions of the light field viewed on your computer contain all the information captured when you shot the image and allow focus to be pulled continuously from the back to the front of the image.
If you want to share your light field image, the software uploads a subset of the data to the company's website, where they're hosted. From here they can either then be viewed on the company's site or shared via sites such as Facebook (there's a direct upload to Facebook option but the original data is still being hosted on Lytro's servers). If this sounds worryingly like the more controlling side of Apple's business model, Ng has some positive points to make: 'a few years ago it would have been impossible to try to put out a new file format. Today with HTML 5 and Flash we can center the work in the right place - within the company. We'll write all the code so that other people can connect and view the images without having to download software.'
He's also completely candid that the company could see some benefit from this approach: 'We think people will see these images on Facebook and want to click through to our site to find out more about them. Every picture is an ambassador.'
All about the pictures
And Ng seems equally confident that people will be pleased with the images, despite the lower conventional resolution: 'It's very easy to get caught up in the specs of a device, but cameras are devices for taking pictures and sharing stories. We want to make the picture that is most meaningful. If people are sharing their images on Facebook, they're not using all those megapixels.'
'What are the qualitative elements of the device? The experience of taking the picture, the ease of use, the viewing experience. That's why we describe our camera with a different unit of capture - not megapixels but megarays.'
Beyond this, Ng won't go into detail about the cameras' resolution, beyond saying that these initial 11 megaray files will be 'at least HD' (1080 vertical pixels).
Adding another dimension
Rather than dwelling on resolution, Ng is keen to highlight the 3D capabilities of the light field approach. Because the light field retains information about the direction from which light has arrived, it has inherently captured three dimensions of information. Although not supported at launch, Lytro is able to show demos of images where the initial viewpoint can be moved around. 'We can change the viewpoint,' he says: 'which is unique to capturing light fields. They're effectively digital holograms. We've actually had holograms made from light fields - this is what the directional information can do.'
'We capture one of the key cues humans use for the perception of depth - parallax.' The effect of recalculating the viewpoint is interesting - giving much the same effect as closing one eye then bobbing your head about. It certainly conveys a sense of depth in a very intuitive manner. Ng is clearly pretty proud of this: 'We can uniquely deliver 3D on a regular display without glasses, with a full parallax effect.'
And, he points out, because this just a different way of processing the light field data, it will be possible to present any images taken with the first cameras this way, once the software is complete (the company says the capability will be added in 2012).
Shaking up the photographic market?
Given the immense efforts made by vast companies such as Samsung and Panasonic to gain a foothold in the photographic market, it's hard to imagine a startup being able to make much headway, so it's interesting to hear Ng talk about how he sees his product: 'It's a disruptive technology. In the 1960s, people had their high quality cameras and great glass but that didn't stop people loving the immediacy of Polaroid. Now we have the iPhone - which is great for social, immediate photos. None of them are replacements for one another.'
Which raises an interesting point: how many people believed Apple had a chance of breaking into the well-established mobile phone market? And, while we wouldn't yet assume Lytro is going to experience that same level of success, we also wouldn't dismiss the company just because of its outsider status. The system still has some way to go to prove itself (we've yet to see production-standard images), but our first impressions are that it may well be able to capitalize on the huge levels of interest it has generated.
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