Friday, 2 March 2012

Lytro is going to change the photography industry in more ways than you think

You've heard of Lytro and what it can do, but the impressive camera is capable of more than just refocusing fun: it's going to turn the camera manufacturing market upside down.
Yesterday Lytro officially launched, bringing its untraditional design and revolution technology into consumers’ hands. The first light field camera introduced us to the megaray and its infinite focus feature, as well as incendiary debate about the future of photography.
NEA has been one of Lytro’s biggest investors, and partner Patrick Chung is thoroughly convinced of the new camera’s potential. “Photography hasn’t fundamentally changed in two centuries,” he tells us. “It’s had major advances like color photography, and digital photography – but the physics of it have never changed.”
Lytro is throwing that science out the window: we had a chance to go hands-on with the device at CES (which we’ve been told was the finalized version of the hardware), and realized just how big a step in the evolution of digital imaging it represents. “[Lytro] can capture all of the vector data in a single exposure, the direction of all the light rays,” says Chung. “Later you can change the way that light bends using the software.” And while that might sound steeped in science, the beauty of Lytro is its intuitiveness and simplicity: it really is as easy as touching or clicking to focus and refocus.
For all its effortlessness entertainment and minimalist build, the new camera comes with far-reaching implications. The cameras we’ve come to know and love (and spend heaps of money on) are based on their superior glass – which is not a commodity American manufacturers are known for. “The ones that do it best are German and Japanese,” says Chung. He’s obviously right: names like Zeiss, Leica, and Sigma aren’t based stateside. “Glass is what’s at the center of the market,” he says.
But Lytro is taking that out of the equation and replacing it with software. “Glass matters so much less; aperture opens fully on every single exposure since you’re taking in all the light,” says Chung. “What you have is essentially a computational lens.” This means America is reclaiming a piece of an industry it hasn’t innovated in for a long, long time.
Chung says Lytro could be “the next renaissance of a whole technology strain in Silicon Valley.” And we don’t doubt him. Lytro makes sense as a feature in a variety of image capture devices –including the smartphone. “This technology will work in a camera kit for a phone,” he says. He also addressed the fact that in a recent FCC teardown, a Wi-Fi chip was found in the camera. “It’s definitely on our roadmap. We wouldn’t have put it in there if we didn’t plan on using it.”
For now, Lytro is only just getting into consumers’ very eager hands. Demand has been incredible and Chung says they’re making them as fast as they can to keep up. And the surreal photos can be shared and used on Facebook from day one, so users aren’t limited to Lytro’s own software or gallery for viewing purposes.  
At one point, it sounded as if the company intended to go its own route. When Lytro was first introduced, creator Dr. Ren Ng said “we can do it better” – although he also noted this wasn’t a veto on ever allowing others to use the technology. “We’re open to it,” Chung says when asked if Lytro would ever lease its technology. “Right now, though, we just want to get the technology out there under our own product.” For now, the Lytro camera can have its moment – but we can’t wait to see where it takes us from here.