We are taking an incredible amount of photos every day.  Back in October 2012, a Nokia presentation mentioned, “1.4 billion photos are taken every day with mobile phones and 638 million of them are posted to social networks.”  A number that is likely to continue to increase, and don’t forget, that is just counting photos taken from mobile phones.  As technology has improved, we have been able to develop better cameras while significantly reducing the size of the device.  But shrinking the size of the camera isn’t all that new technology has allowed us to do.

In late 2011, a new kind of consumer camera launched by a company called Lytro.  The Lytro camera utilizes something known as “light field” technology, which allows the camera to capture the entire light field, meaning the camera takes in all the light traveling in every direction, in every point in space.  This is very different from conventional cameras that capture a single plane of light.  By capturing the entire light field, the Lytro camera can offer some very cool features, such as the ability to focus, refocus, and/or change the perspective on anything in your photo even after it has been taken.

I recently spoke with Eric Cheng, the Director of Photography at Lytro, to get an idea where the company is now since its launch back in late 2011.  The Lytro camera began shipping in early 2012 and since then has developed an active community of photographers with over 550,000 photos uploaded to the Lytro gallery.  “There is a hardcore group of people who Lytro just works for,” said Mr. Cheng.  He went on to to tell me, “Customers are saying it’s [Lytro camera] new and different, that it makes them feel more creative, and gets their creativity flowing.”  But because it is a different kind of camera than most people are used to, it does require a little education to learn how to get the most out of it.

The Lytro Seems Like Magic

People’s first reaction when using the Lytro is usually along the lines of, “It seems like magic,” said Mr. Cheng.  He went on to tell me, “It’s the first camera where it’s unclear how it works.”  Which is why the education aspect is so important.  In order to help people learn more about the camera and how to better use it, Lytro opened a section on its website dedicated to teaching customers everything they need to know.  The company also produced a few podcasts highlighting topics such as how to take a portrait using the Lytro camera and how to refocus photos after they were taken.

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lytro-camera-stackedIn addition to customers being educated on how to properly use the camera, it’s important that they understand what kind of photography works best with the Lytro camera.  So what kind of photography works best?  Any photo where you can explore depth or if there is blur will work well, I’m told by Mr. Cheng.  The Lytro camera works extremely well for taking photos of very small objects and also makes macro photography much easier.

However, other types of photography such as landscape photography may not work as well with a Lytro, “If you take a picture with a very large depth of field (such as a landscape) everything is already in focus, you can fix a particular focus, but you don’t get the interactivity,” he went on to say.

Lytro has also taken part in a number of campaigns to promote the camera and its capabilities.  One of the campaigns that stood out to me was the collaboration with Disney for the movie Oz the Great and Powerful.  Lytro sent photographers to the various locations to take photos, which were then integrated into promotional materials.  Once they had the photos, Lytro hid markers in some of the photos, and people had to interact with the photo to find a special word to enter the contest.  The winners of the contest received a limited edition run of emerald Lytro cameras.  The company also partnered with the Style Network, who used Lytro cameras to photograph a bunch of runway shows, making it the first publication to do coverage using light field technology.

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The Future: Video Capabilities and Mobile Integration

The technology behind the Lytro is always improving.  In fact, according to Mr. Cheng, they are just at the beginning of what is possible with light field.  He told me to expect all the things that make traditional cameras better to happen with the Lytro, such as improving the resolution and dynamic range.  However, while we should expect hardware improvements, Mr. Cheng also told me that when it comes to light field photos, the software updates can be just as important.  For example, the company released an update to the firmware to allow customers to have more manual control over the camera, such as with the exposure. Additionally, software updates in many instances allow customers to take advantage of new features and apply to them to photos they took prior to the update.  When the company released the software update to enable perspective shift, any photo taken with a Lytro camera could be modified using the new feature regardless of when it was taken.

But what about video and mobile?

“Every day we get emails from people who want video and a 3D component,” Mr. Cheng said.  He went on to tell me that Lytro has developed internal concepts with video that have worked well.  Lytro is also exploring more integration with mobile devices, including smartphones.  When I asked Mr. Cheng about the possibility of a Lytro camera showing up in a smartphone he replied, “We’re not closed to the idea.  Anything is possible, we are open to the idea and licensing.”

While there is no news regarding a next generation Lytro camera at this time, I was assured that that they do have a product roadmap planned.  So if you haven’t bought a Lytro yet, why would you want one?  “It will change the way you take and experience pictures,” said Mr. Cheng.  It’s a “Storytelling revolution,” he went on to say.


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