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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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