The Lytro Camera Is Revolutionary, But It’s No iPhone

The inventors and investors behind the Lytro, the hot new “light field” camera that creates refocusable digital photos, are trying to have it both ways. They’re arguing that their new camera, which sells for $399-$499, will revolutionize consumer photography in the near term by freeing people from shutter delays and the need to focus their shots. At the same time, they say the true impact of light field photography (and the true value of Lytro as a company) will only become evident over the longer term, as computational photography goes mainstream and the key enabling technology inside the camera—an array of micro-lenses that, in effect, slice up a 3D scene into multiple planar images—turns up in more types of devices.

Both things could be true, of course. But for consumers intrigued by the new device, the big question is whether to buy one now, or wait a year or two while the technology matures. I’ve talked with Lytro’s scientist-founder and with the main venture firm behind the company, and I’ve also played around with a Lytro camera (you can see some of my shots below). My tentative verdict is that the Lytro will appeal greatly to the “early adopter” crowd, but has a few crucial limitations. Enough, probably, to keep it from being the kind of breakthrough product whose obvious utility smashes in upon consumers’ consciousness all at once, the way the iPhone did.

In other words, if you’re the kind of person who rushed out to get an iPhone on the day Apple introduced it in 2007, as I did, then you will probably want to order a Lytro. But if you were patient enough to wait for a few weeks, or even to delay until the iPhone 3G or the iPhone 4S, then you probably won’t feel you’re missing anything by waiting for the “Lytro 2” or the “Lytro 3.”

You might say that it’s not fair to compare the Lytro, or any new gadget, to the iPhone. And you’d probably be right. I would be willing to argue (especially if you bought me a couple of beers) that the iPhone is the most transformative piece of consumer technology ever invented, when you consider how quickly it changed everyone’s expectations about computing and communications (and, of course, set the stage for the “unbeatable” iPad). Apple’s current market capitalization of $505 billion, which is roughly equal to the value of Microsoft and Google and HP put together, is a little piece of evidence for this hypothesis.

But I’m not actually the one proposing the audacious comparison to the iPhone. Patrick Chung of New Enterprise Associates—the world’s largest venture fund, and the lead firm in Lytro’s $50 million Series A round last year—did that for me. What the iPhone did for communications, Chung told me in a conversation last week, the Lytro will do for photography. “Maybe the analogy to Lytro is not perfect, but in the iPhone case, that first product really summed up the concept, so that people could see ‘Aha, this is where it’s all going'”—and the first Lytro camera will do the same, Chung argues.

I am awed by the Lytro, but I’m afraid I just don’t agree. The first Lytro camera is not the device that will upend consumer photography. But light field cameras will ultimately change the way we think about taking pictures, and I think Lytro, the company, will do very well indeed. NEA has $12 billion under management, so it doesn’t make little bets: “We can only ever go after the companies that have the potential to be transformative and produce a really outsized return for a really outsized fund,” Chung says. I think Lytro was a very wise investment—just not one that will pay off quite as quickly as the hype around the new camera would suggest.

Let’s back up and talk about the camera itself. The Lytro ($399 for the 8-gigabyte models and $499 for the 16-gigabyte model) looks like a square little telescope: it’s 4.4 inches long and measures 1.6 inches on each side. An 8x optical zoom lens assembly takes up about two thirds of the space inside the gadget, and the other third houses the battery, the main processor board, and the touchscreen display. Sandwiched in between these two sections is the key component: the light field sensor, which is identical to a standard digital camera sensor except for the micro-lens array mounted to its front. The array divides up the sensor into thousands of separate areas, each of which captures a miniature view of the scene from a slightly different angle.

Here’s the key point about the Lytro that blows up all of our old notions about photography: When you have sensors with such high resolution that you can afford to break up the image into thousands of mini-images, you can perform some very interesting math on the resulting data. You don’t need a bunch of clunky, heavy, expensive optics to make sure that light rays from the scene converge into a focused image on the sensor. You no longer care about focus at all, because if you compare all the mini-images, you can reason backward to figure out where each ray of light in a scene came from. You end up, in essence, with a three-dimensional record of the space in front of the camera (that’s what “light field” means), and from this record you can reconstruct imaginary pictures showing what any slice of that 3D space would have looked like if you had tried to focus on it.

That, plus some nifty visualization software, is what allows Lytro to create its unique “living pictures,” which you can refocus instantly simply by clicking or tapping on a specific point in the image. (Try clicking around on one of the images embedded here, which I took this week on a Lytro photo walk for journalists in San Francisco.) This in itself would be cool enough: the refocusability of Lytro’s images makes them into interactive objects, inviting a kind of exploration and emotional engagement that you just don’t get with static, monoplanar images. But there’s an added advantage to light field photography: If you don’t care about focusing the image before it’s taken, you don’t need all the autofocus sensors and motors that get the optics into place before you shoot. This means you can snap a picture the instant the camera comes on—which any parent with a hyperkinetic child will appreciate. The Lytro camera does have motors and a stack of lenses inside, but that’s only to provide zoom capability.

It’s really a mind-blowing concept, and it was all worked out by Ren Ng as part of his 2006 doctoral dissertation for the Stanford computer science department. The founding of Lytro, where Ng is now CEO, was a typical Silicon Valley story: Pat Hanrahan, Ng’s doctoral advisor, knew the partners at NEA because they’d backed his company Tableau Software. “Pat said ‘I have this really super bright student and you should take a look at what he is doing,'” Chung recounts. After falling for Ng’s initial presentation, Chung put him in front of a full partner meeting at NEA, where he “took a picture of us, immediately uploaded it to the Web, and showed us the refocusability. We were just astonished. Each and every one of us had the same reaction, which was that [optical photography] is a technology that has not seen fundamental innovation in two centuries, and we were staring it in the face.”

But it’s one thing to come up with a game-changing idea, and another thing to use it to actually change consumer behavior. If you’re looking to explain why the iPhone took off so quickly—selling 1 million units in the first 74 days—-I think you have to zero in on two interrelated innovations: the beautiful multitouch screen, and the intuitive, gestural interaction paradigms that Apple’s software designers came up with to exploit that screen. The iPhone didn’t make just one thing, like dialing or managing a contact list, demonstrably easier and more fun than on previous phones—it made many things easier, from Web browsing to e-mail to calendaring to messaging to navigation to photo and music management. And all this was even before the iPhone had third-party apps or 3G connectivity.

For photographers, the Lytro makes exactly two things easier: 1) Focusing, which is now unnecessary. 2) Capturing a candid scene instantly, without any autofocus or shutter delay. Then there’s a third, bonus element: the explorative nature of the “living pictures,” which is a genuine novelty with many creative implications.

This is all very cool, but I’m just not sure it adds up to a $399 to $499 value for most consumers. To get really nit-picky: The no-focus feature is actually a little hard to get your head around, and I’m not sure it’s a huge advantage, because people are already turning en masse to smartphone cameras, which either have such a tiny aperture (and a correspondingly large depth of field) that the focus never needs to be adjusted, or have easy touchscreen-based focusing controls. By the same token, I’m not sure the instant-snap feature is a huge advantage, unless your Lytro is immediately at hand everywhere you go (it’s small but it’s not really pocket-sized).

There’s one further challenge for Lytro. The touchscreen on the first-generation device is tiny: it measures just 1.46 inches diagonally, with only 128×128 pixels. I’m not a screen size chauvinist—in fact, I think many digital camera manufacturers have tried to gussy up their latest models by giving them unnecessarily large screens. But while I can understand why Lytro made the screen so small (it was dictated by the overall tube-shaped form factor of the device, and probably saves battery power too), I think it was a tactical error.

Here’s why: the Lytro “living pictures” are all about exploration and refocusability. If the screen isn’t big enough to show the device’s pictures to advantage—and it definitely isn’t—then you wind up separating the experience of capturing the photos from the experience of exploring them. That’s a shame, since the whole package together is what has the potential to make Lytro interesting to a broad swath of consumers. Because the screen is so small, you can’t really tell how your photos came out until you’ve transferred them to your computer (Mac only for now, by the way). This is actually a step backward technologically, since the ability to review the photo you just took and erase it, if it’s no good, is one of the big advantages of digital photography.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing that the Lytro will be a flop. It would be hard to argue that when the company says it already has too many orders to keep up with. In fact, I predict Ren Ng will wind up in the history books alongside photographic pioneers like Mathew Brady, Eadweard Muybridge, Harold “Doc” Edgerton, Edwin Land, and George Smith and Willard Boyle (the Bell Labs scientists who invented the first charge-coupled device, the heart of all digital cameras). But I do think the company will need to keep tinkering with the product before it has a real hit on its hands. The number-one priority: a larger touchscreen that’s closer to the camera’s output resolution (currently 1080×1080 pixels per “slice”).

By way of closing, here’s a bit of wild speculation. I’m not sure it’s Lytro’s destiny to be a standalone maker of consumer digital cameras. When I talked to Ng this week, I asked him whether there’s any fundamental reason the light field sensor board couldn’t be made thin enough to insert inside a smartphone or tablet. He said there isn’t, except that you’d have to give up the zoom lens.

So here’s my prediction: a year or two from now, Apple will use a bit of its vast hoard of cash ($97 billion at the close of 2011) to buy Lytro for, say, $590 million—the same amount Cisco paid for Flip, and enough to provide NEA and Lytro’s other investors with their “really outsized return.” It will then put a light field camera into every iPhone 6 and every fifth-generation iPad, alongside their iSight cameras. This would be a completely affordable and logical move for Apple, which has a strong commitment to imaging and photography as a consumer category. On top of that, iPhones and iPads have screens that naturally lend themselves to exploring a “living picture.”

You heard it here first. The Lytro is no iPhone—but it might just end up in one. And no matter what happens, innovations in light field photography, and in computational photography more broadly, are going to completely change the way we think about images. (In that vein, see this report from my colleague Curt Woodward on Microsoft’s recent TechFest, where the company showed off a fascinating, Harry Potter-esque photography tool called Cliplet.) I’m looking forward to all the fun.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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36 responses to “The Lytro Camera Is Revolutionary, But It’s No iPhone”

  1. Recluse says:

    A little weird that the entire article about this light field camera is basically a puff piece for your favourite gadget, the iPhone.

    When the iPhone was released, it was 2G-only, had 0 apps and no app store, had no MMS/bluetooth or copy&paste and had absolutely no multi-tasking of 3rd party apps.

    The iPhone 1 was a dumbphone. The only things it changed was forcing capacitive screens upon us. As this technology recently became viable, it was a natural progression. There was already a successful LG phone with a capacitive display so it wasn’t even original or something that ‘changed the industry’.

    It’s more the media hype that has changed the industry. Something you won’t see with a light field camera.

  2. Andy Barrow says:

    While I’m fascinated by the technology, I think the Lytro people are giving too much credit to the average consumer. If you look at most of the pictures on Facebook, Flickr or Picasa, you see hundreds, even thousands, of pictures of individuals or bits of scenery. While professional, semi professional and even high-end amateur photographers are concerned about depth of field, the fact is that most photographers have a single target in mind when they are taking pictures. The ability to change focus to the background might be a nice gimmick, I find it hard to believe that such a capability will capture the market in the way that the Lytro investors predict.

  3. Wade says:

    When you first described the image sensor has having all those micro-lenses, my first thought was “that’s nearly how a hologram works”. Maybe that’s the next big leap for Lytro’s technology.

  4. Lyle says:

    Lytro’s not the first lightfield camera but definitely the most affortable by an order of magnitude. I ran across this cool camera around 6 or 7 months ago, but it’s outradgeously expensive. The company is Ratrix. Still, I am a PC guy and don’t have an iPhone or iPad (sorry if that upsets folks. lol). :)

  5. Andrew Laughton says:

    Just a little more post processing and it would shine that much more.
    Imagine that every part of the image was in focus at the same time, printable, no fiddling with screens. If it could happen in real time, as in a video camera, with a very large depth of field it would be better.
    Moveable focus is nice, but a bit arty for most people.

  6. Craig says:

    A few points (from other articles on Lytro):

    (1) You _can_ have all parts of a picture in crisp focus.
    (2) Steve Jobs had already been talking to Lytro.

  7. Christian Gross says:

    A solution without a problem. Sure it is nifty this technology, no doubt about that. But quite frankly my iPhone camera is doing well enough as it is. So is my digital SLR. Like has been said by other folks most of the pictures I take has a single point of view. I really don’t care about the glass of water in the foreground because well it is not part of the picture.

    I also ask why should I buy this camera? Are there GPS coordinates? Can I easily upload to a website? Can I easily share? I think this camera is missing quite a few of the things that I now expect of a camera. Just having technology for the sake of technology reminds of 3d screens. Nice idea, but frankly just not worth it.

  8. Christian Gross says:

    This article is referenced in Slashdot, and one poster made a really insightful comment:

    “My first thought was that it could be great for video; no need to bother with precise focus while shooting if you can refocus when you edit. However, I’m guessing that it would require a huge data rate.”

    Now that would be interesting… Video… But not photography. Now though the company is chasing technology and a market. Not good…

  9. dog says:

    I thought the author was going to mention the low-resolution of Lytro images. The sensor is perhaps high-resolution, but eliminating the need to focus is paid for by dramatically lower resolution in the final product.

  10. Ian Thomas says:

    Will you able to import your photos into Photoshop? According to you can’t.

  11. Jason Mosall says:

    Not a bad article, but this guy is a bit hung up on apple. They should pay you if you’re going to advertise for them fanboy.

  12. marty says:

    What about motion photography, not to mention holography. Wave the camera around a bit, and you can recreate any volume of space that you can see, accurately, and quickly. How about porn applications. Actual 3D images of your favorite porn stars, or of the cute girl at the office, either with her own body, or a much hotter one. Really good 3D, in a small camera. All the needed information is there, and nowadays we have the processing power to use it, and the disk drives to store it. What we see in this article is the smallest part of what the multiple image camera will do.

  13. brian says:

    This complex lens system is a degradation, especially for geometry (read photogrammetry) use. The multiple lenses are harder to calibrate and keep in calibration (although no autofocus motor is a plus).

    Unless these can be modelled somehow the ability to use these cameras for precision measurement use goes away. I guess you could always tack on a simple cellphone camera sensor sans autofocus to provide measurement capabilities.

  14. Drac says:

    How many times must it be said that Apple (or Jobs, or whoever) did NOT “invent” the Iphone??? Like most of their technology, Apple took and/or refined things that already existed.

  15. Antonio says:

    Interesting piece, I’m not sure I agree that the iphone is the most transformative piece of consumer technology ever invented though !! More transformative than the PC, the television, the radio, the motor car, the light bulb? Umm, no I don’t think so. Not sure that Apples market cap really means much in particular, I remember once when AOL had a massive market cap too, and when other .com companies had market caps higher than Boeing !

    One thing that confuses me about this camera, is why they didn’t use a form factor similar to that of a traditional camera? From the description of the technology it seems that would’ve been possible. I think the most likely future for this technology is that it is licensed to traditional camera manufacturers as opposed to them developing their own brand further, but I could be completely wrong on this.

  16. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    Recluse, Jason, Drac, Antonio: I do happen to like most Apple products, but I don’t consider myself a fanboy. I’ve written plenty of critical stuff about Apple. The reason the iPhone comparison is so prominent in this article is that it’s the analogy Patrick Chung, a partner at Lytro’s largest venture backer, emphasized to me when we talked. I thought it was a provocative comparison, and I wanted to take it face value and ask what made the iPhone successful, then think about whether Lytro lives up to the same standard. I don’t think it does. Close, but not quite.

    Whether the iPhone is the “most transformative” piece of consumer technology ever invented, or simply the most transformative of the last 20 years or so, is something we could certainly debate over beers. :) Obviously you couldn’t have the iPhone without the PC or cellular technology, so it’s not as if it sprang from the head of Zeus. But my feeling is that the iPhone symbolized and catalyzed a huge shift away from software-centered design and the desktop, toward human-centered design and mobile devices, a shift that’s still just beginning.

    And not to get too caught up in this side debate, but whether Apple or some other company “invented” the idea of the handheld device driven by a capacitive touch screen doesn’t matter; it’s clear that Apple, and nobody else, made this technology the center of a huge and lucrative ecosystem. You can also say Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but he was certainly the first to successfully commercialize the idea of electricity in the home.

  17. DaveU says:

    Security video seems like the most viable commercial application for light field cameras. They could make it trivial for CSI-type “sharpen that image” work needed to make out someone’s facial features or car license plate number.

  18. Grant says:

    After beta testing the camera, I think it is very fun to use, but this article does make the very good point that showing the images on the camera itself is not particularly effective. Sharing pictures on social media is very easy — so the camera is great fun and also shines light on the path on good ways to move the technology forward.

    Personally I find the camera very easy to slip into a pocket – even jeans pockets let the camera easily slip inside. As to smartphones having small apertures and thus large depth of fields — that is in fact what make this camera more not less interesting — for some shots all in focus is a good thing — that is coming to the Lytro and for other shots is preferable to control the DOF some times a very tight DOF is most effective. I think people will catch on to this concept very easily.

    From the point of ergonomics I like the form factor — it is very easy to hold — after many decades with a traditional shapes I find it trivial to make the switch to holding this camera.

  19. All this talk about changing history is great. I am in Mumbai, India and I went to the Lytro website to buy the camera and I was told that they do not ship outside the US. This is the first company in the world that does not ship outside the US. I thought the Internet made the world a global village, this company yet lives in the 20th century and wonder how they will change the future of cameras.

  20. Kelly Luck says:

    I’ve been following this company for quite a while, and while the technology is exciting as all get out, I think the initial product is a terrible design: square shape, weight toward the end, tiny screen, not very pocket-friendly (edit: actually I see here a tester saying it worked fine in their pocket, but I jsut don’t see it), etc… it seems like it oculd be best used in a vastly different format: been toying with various ideas, but I think I agree that it should be mostly screen, so to speak, possibly with a pistol grip for stability’s sake. It would be nice to see it in a smartphone, true, but I worry about the storage capacity. Would you be able to regulate how much ‘depth’ was being pulled? You know how those things fill up.

    Anyway, I guess it’s adequate for Step 1, but I would really love to see it used with a known-good camera design (SLR, for instance: I would kill for something like this in my next EOS body.)

  21. JWilly48519 says:

    This seems to me to be productization of someone’s engineering ideas, without a good understanding of what users need or want. The product doesn’t have much practical utility for amateur early adopters, who get by just fine with fixed-focus or autofocus cameras . Professional and prosumer users almost always will want the superior optical performance (high resolution, high low-light sensitivity, low noise) that they can get with a physically large lens and sensor.

    Light field cameras don’t have room for large lenses because both the sensor and the lens array have to be integral and small to be affordable, and the sensor of course also has to be small for the image-reconstruction optical physics to make mathematical sense for close-up shots. Because the sensor sub-areas are each quite small, the electronic physics results in mediocre resolution, low low-light sensitivity, and relatively high noise. Plus, optical companies still are finding ways of improving physically large lenses. Lens making is hugely more difficult at micro sizes. How will those lenses be made of the same optical quality as a single high quality lens of much larger size, and all exactly equal to each other?

    So is there a real market for this product?

    Sure, it’s an interesting technology. It might have some specialized uses. But, I don’t see that it solves a problem that actual camera users regard as high on their priority list, at a price that corresponds to that priority.

  22. Peter says:

    I have this terrific new technology that selects the best possible focus for the picture in context and sets that focus into the image. It’s called an “artist.”

    Seriously, WTH would I want to set focus as a consumer when so many photographers are so brilliant with the art.

    A niche at best.

  23. other guy says:

    It ain’t Canon or Nikon either! It is a nice feauture. It can be of use if the image quality increases comparable to DSLRs. It is hard to do a depth-of-field bracketting from DLSRs. Looks like this can do that easily. But no use if the IQ is not good!