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 »