Lytro wants to bring photography into the future by creating cameras that do the seemingly impossible—allowing anyone viewing the image to choose which part is in focus. It's called light field technology, and it might already be completely obsolete.
Over the past couple of years, camera technology has plateaued. Smartphones have gobbled up the need for dedicated point-and-shoot cameras, and the higher end devices are incrementally upgraded, exciting only hardcore enthusiasts. The desire for something futuristically awesome in the camera world has been building, and light field technology seemed like a great candidate.
Launched in 2011, Lytro gave us the first consumer "light field" camera, a small rectangular box that can produce small images that you can click on to choose the focus point. Neat,right? This is accomplished by using an array of tiny microlenses that sit in front of the sensor, gathering light and depth information about the scene in front of them. That data is then computed and reconstructed as photograph, entirely differently from the way a picture is normally taken by just grabbing on moment in time. It's a cool technology, and definitely an innovative approach.
The result is somewhat primitive, as far as fidelity goes, but the experience of seeing the digital image blur in and out from foreground to background is fun and gratifying, and many were calling it the next revolution in photography when it first hit the scene.
Fast forward to 2014, and Lytro has announced the Illum—an impressively spec'd device that actually looks like a camera, and is controlled like a camera. The $1600 Illum is promising better quality and a more familiar experience to compliment its core light-field technology.
That's terrific, and it's easy to look at a product like Lytro's new Illum with wide-eyed excitement. The device is slick, futuristic, and produces some great effects. However you eventually face the camera's limitations. Many of which virtually identical to what held back the inaugural version of this tech years ago. Viewing Lytro's images in a proprietary web viewer is a clunky, laggy affair, that is not at all conducive to the sharing across platforms which defines photography today. The images themselves lack the sharpness of a normal digital camera. Any photographer used to the incredible detailed pictures of modern cameras will no doubt look at a Lytro image and just say—meh.
At the same time, competition is closing in on Lytro from other angles. We're starting to see similar after-the-fact-focusing in smartphones and even some dedicated cameras, software simulation of the very effect that Lytro's light field hardware produces. Two of the most anticipated smartphones of 2014—the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5—have selective focus options built in. Google's stock Android camera app also features it. The HTC One M8's Duo Camera uses a combination of software and an additional lens that collects rudimentary depth information. Meanwhile the Galaxy S5 emulates the effect with nothing but software, analyzing the image's areas of contrast and applying a blur effect to various regions to simulate a shallow depth of field. And Nokia's Refocus app stacks multiple images focused at different points into one file.
These examples usually produce less-than-stellar results, not nearly as refined as the Lytro. But the technology is sure to evolve, and may prove perfectly adequate to satisfy the niche of interest in selective focus photography. And when the effect is kind of a gimmick to begin with, having a slightly less robust version of the tech built into a device that does other things is a little more preferable than dropping over a thousand dollars on something of such limited use.
As mobile device makers are developing selective focus solutions, camera makers are right on their heels. In April, Olympus announced the TG-3, a rugged outdoor camera with a similar ability to Nokia's Refocus, the ability to shoot multiple exposures with varying focus points at macro distances, instantly combining those images to produce a single shot with more of the scene remaining sharp. The feature is quite limited, only working at extremely close distances to the subject. But it's the first step toward high resolution cameras that use rote processing power and advanced lens motors to instantly snap multiple shots and fuse them for manipulation after-the-fact. Many devices already do this already with HDR (high dynamic range) modes, stacking exposures of varying brightness into one single image. It seems only a matter of time before any standard camera can duplicate what Lytro can do, only without the use of light-field technology, which sacrifices image quality severely.
Lytro's CEO, Jason Rosenthal, ultimately is not concerned with these imitators. "We are doing something fundamentally different which starts by collecting rich data about the world in the form of a light field," Rosenthall says. It's true, there is a clear differentiation at a tech level, but it's how that tech manifests itself in a user experience that matters most, and where the worry should lie.
Light Field technology is, by Lytro's own admission, still young, and not quite ready to challenge the status quo of photography. The potential is there, but its not in selective focus. Its in the more subtle ways the technology can aid in photo-making. Take lenses for example. Light field technology vastly reduces the need for gargantuan optical elements usually used for telephoto shooting. The lens on the Illum is a 30-250mm f/2 (full-frame equivalent). That spec on a DSLR lens would make it monstrous. Small lens size is a real benefit that would change photography significantly, if not in the glitzy way they might imagine. With the onslaught of competing technology, it will be tough to for the company to convince people that its product is more than just a novelty to gawk at for a minute.
Lytro's leaders need to think past that immediate excitement the product provides, and consider the world of images in a broader context—how they move, how we consume them—before its technology can have an impact. It seems as though they are ready to aim high, as Rosenthall told us, "Our belief is that the transition from digital to light field/computational photography will be as significant for the industry as the transition from film to digital." That's a pretty bold statement, and the proof will have to show itself outside of the small boxes Lytro images are confined to.