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 contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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