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

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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.

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

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