How Lytro is Shifting Our Perspective on Photography

Xconomy National — 

The first time I got to play with a Lytro light-field camera was in March, 2012. If I had to sum up my reaction in eight words, it would be: “Concept: Mind-blowing. Execution: Not quite there yet.”

It was clear that the technology inside the camera—which makes it possible to refocus a picture after it’s been taken—would eventually upset all of our notions about photos and photography. But the device itself reminded me of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first commercial home video game console.

When it appeared in 1972, the Odyssey had analog circuitry, no sound, and grainy black-and-white graphics, and could only run a handful of games. Yet it’s remembered now because it heralded a true revolution in home entertainment. (Atari’s Pong didn’t come until three years later.)

Likewise, the first-generation Lytro has a low-resolution sensor, a lamentably tiny display, and an awkward interface. But it’s still enough to get across the enormous potential of light field photography.

What’s amazing is how quickly the technology is evolving. There’s no second-generation Lytro yet (though it’s safe to assume the Mountain View, CA-based company is working on one). But because light field photography is mostly about computation, not optics or electronics, Lytro can make its existing camera more powerful simply by upgrading the software used to process light-field images.

And that’s exactly what it did in November, rolling out a new feature called Perspective Shift. As the name implies, the feature lets you nudge the perspective in a Lytro image slightly, as if you were present in the scene and moving your head a few inches in one direction or the other.

It’s easier to show Perspective Shift than to describe it—just click and drag on the Lytro image below to see how it works. (You can also click on any point in the image to refocus it; that feature was the Lytro’s original selling point.)

Pretty damn cool, huh? You can go to Lytro’s gallery to explore a bunch more of these images.

Perspective Shift is possible because the Lytro camera captures far more information about a scene than a traditional digital camera. In fact, there’s enough data in a single Lytro image to reconstruct a 3-D scene, or at least a sliver of one. “The light field itself is inherently multidimensional,” explains Eric Cheng, Lytro’s director of photography. “The 2-D refocusable picture that we launched with was just one way to represent that.”

The big picture here (so to speak) is that we are about to enter the second age of 3-D photography, and this time it will be consumers, rather than just professional photographers, behind the lens. I’ll explain what happened during the first age, and how Lytro is changing things, in a moment. But if you retain nothing else about this article, remember this: The Lytro images we’re seeing today are but a meager taste of what’s coming.

Whether or not future light field cameras bear the Lytro logo, they’re going to give us capabilities that even science-fiction movie directors haven’t imagined. With a single snapshot, you’ll be able to capture an entire 3-D environment, then explore it later using either a 2-D or a 3-D display. The implications for consumer-level home and travel photography are exciting enough. But when you imagine what architects, designers, engineers, and entertainers could do with the technology, the mind boggles.

But let’s back up about 160 years. Most people don’t realize it, but 3-D photography is almost as old as photography itself. By 1845, a British scientist named Charles Wheatstone had already figured out that if you take two photos of the same scene from slightly different angles, and then arrange the printed pictures so that … Next Page »

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8 responses to “How Lytro is Shifting Our Perspective on Photography”

  1. Bladerunners photography of perspective changes with the image of the man in the mirror are almost here! I never thought photography could get this good. Well done to Lytro! Your name wil be heralded as the foreruner of modern photography! – Jason Brisbane

  2. Helen says:

    Hi Interesting topics

  3. jhafer says:

    Finally, maybe all those blurry pictures of bigfoot will be a thing of the past!

  4. Lothar says:

    not impressed at all

  5. Lothar says:

    I thought it was neat, but not new or revolutionary. It wasnt till the 4D part is when I lost interest. How do they capture Time in a still picture, our society is dumbified enough.

  6. Lothar says:

    Ohh, and its not really 3D either, this is still nothing new.

  7. Binary Bit says:

    last I checked you could still signup to get a free Lytro by becoming a Beta Tester (anyone can apply – not just developers). They are doing this through fresh for an undisclosed number of registrations so hurry. In exchange you are agree to test out the device and provide feedback to them which they are allowed to use as a testimonials. Not sure how long this link will still allow you to click the “Try It” button to register – did work on Feb 9th 2013. – (takes less than 20 seconds).

  8. Binary Bit says:

    Get a Free Lytro by becoming a Beta Tester – applies to anyone, not just developer. The Lytro guys recently signup with fresh to give away an undisclosed number of units to anyone who is willing to preform real life usage tests and then provide feedback they can use as testimonials. Not sure how long this link will still work but go register (took me less than 30sec)