In a recent blog post, Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal has confirmed that the company is headed out of the consumer imaging business to focus instead on developing a light field virtual reality platform. Rosenthal admits that it was too risky to compete in an established consumer space (that was in decline, no less, thanks to smartphones), and determined the value-add of light field technology to VR would have greater impact. Hence, Lytro has scrapped product development in the consumer camera space.

Says Rosenthal, 'The cold hard fact was that we were competing in an established industry where the product requirements had been firmly cemented in the minds of consumers by much larger more established companies.' He also mentions the rise of smartphones and consumer satisfaction with image quality from them.

And 'while consumer Light Field cameras offered a number of true technological breakthroughs such as interactive 3D pictures, radical lens specs, and the ability to focus a picture after the fact,' the reality was that there was much more investment Lytro would've had to make to its cameras competitive with modern cameras in image quality. Meanwhile, VR companies and Hollywood studios were increasingly asking for light field technology in cinematic and next-gen content. 'We had just raised $50MM in new capital. We didn’t have the resources to both continue building consumer products and invest in VR.'

Accordingly, in November of last year, Lytro announced Immerge, a 360° light field video capture device, just after announcing plans for layoffs as the company shifted direction toward video and VR. The pro-grade Immerge was a confirmation of this change in focus. It's currently only a concept camera (co-designed with Seattle-based design firm Artefact, which also designed the Illum), capable of recording live action VR in what Lytro claims as 'six degrees of freedom' that, if we understand correctly, should allow for multiple perspectives from multiple angles of view, as well as focus and depth-of-field control after-the-fact. This is a clear benefit for VR capture, which aims to capture as much scene content as possible for the viewer to explore in a virtual environment. 

The decision to shift the company's focus was not taken lightly. Rosenthal details the anxiety he felt before shifting the company vision, but now says 'My middle of the night panic attacks are gone. I wake with a burning desire to go to work because I am so excited by what we are building and its potential to help shape VR.'

Shallow depth-of-focus
Extended depth-of-focus

Have a read of Rosenthal's full blog post here. It's quite insightful in laying out some of the considerations Lytro has faced as a company. Some of us here are certainly disappointed that Lytro appears to be completely exiting the consumer camera space, as light field technology had a lot of potential in revolutionizing autofocus, in decoupling depth-of-field and light gathering ability, bringing depth-based image editing to the table, and in radical lens design previously thought impossible, thanks to the ability of light field data to perform certain corrections - even image stabilization and simulating faster apertures - after-the-fact as opposed to optically. And that's just the beginning - every image contained all the information necessary to create 3D images, tilt the image plane, select and customize your depth-of-field (we've extended the DOF for our subject, but kept F1.0 background blur in the example above), or capture multiple perspectives which, when paired with light field displays, could one day make for compelling recreations of scenes. That said, many of these benefits will carry over to Lytro's new direction of focus, and we are very excited to see what Lytro brings to VR and video.

We'll be following closely. And who knows, perhaps some of the R&D that goes into their new products may find their way back into stills-oriented devices in some form or another. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.