Rarely am I given the opportunity to interview a genius. Someone who has really shaken up the tech world. So, when the opportunity to interview the founder and inventor of Lytro Cameras, Dr Ren Ng, presented itself I leapt at the chance. One thing is for sure: the man — like his iconic camera — does not disappoint. His is a story that will change the way you take photos. Pull focus with us.
Dr Ren Ng sidled into our offices here in Sydney yesterday for a chat. In tow was an entourage of Lytro staff and the local distributor of the new light-field cameras. They had all just been down at the Opera House, taking some photos with the Lytro camera. They were all getting ready for a photowalk scheduled for tomorrow. One thing is for sure: Dr Ren Ng is a long way from where the idea for the camera he's using was born.
In 2005, Ng was doing his post-graduate studies at Stanford University. Even then he was known for his brain. He was working with the univeristy's Multi-Camera Array, and he had discovered a way to shrink that into a single body — a massive achievement. From there, he commercialised it and invented the Lytro camera.
That's a quick and dirty history of Dr Ren Ng's invention, with the most important phase being the commercial release of the first Lytro for the masses. Millions of dollars in research, countless man-hours in a lab, all for a beautiful rectangular tube that allows users to re-focus on photos they've taken after the fact.
The camera is incredibly functional and super easy to use, so much so that you could hand it to your grandparents for use as their everyday shooter.
After a few months of being on sale in the US, Lytro this week celebrated its international launch.
We went hands-on with the camera, and it's an impressive beast. The refocus ability is easy, practical and will blow your mind and the macro performance is second to none.
It has a few issues with low-light performance and screen quality, but it's a 1.0 product and these issues are to be expected.
Check out these test shots:
The Lytro camera currently captures more information than it knows what to do with. Light field images capture a huge amount of data about what's in front of you, and as time goes on, Lytro is able to release new firmware and new software to update the existing hardware with new features.
For example, because the Lytro software knows the direction of light all around the frame, it's able to intelligently tell the difference between what's in the foreground, mid-ground and background. As a result, you'll soon be able to use parallax scrolling to explore an image. That is, you'll be able to touch, drag and pan around an image so that it has the illusion of depth. These images will also be able to be viewed in 3D with the relevant hardware, further pushing the limit of what you can do with your Lytro.
Lytro is also looking into enabling light-field video capture, to give everyone perfectly focussed videos as well as images.
It's all well and good to add these features to a product in order to keep consumers happy, but what's next in terms of hardware. Where can Lytro light-field cameras go? There's a question that's still yet to be answered...
The multi-million dollar question is a simple one: when will we have light-field capabilities in our mobile smartphones?
Dr Ren Ng reclines in one of our office chairs and carefully considers the question I have just asked. After all, it's an important one.
Ren and I both know that one of the last meetings Steve Jobs took before he passed was to meet with Lytro about putting their camera technology into the next iPhones, so the question is difficult to say the least.
Click to refocus...
People look at Lytro and say 'well, it's a big shape, so what about very small packages?'". He goes on to point out that you don't actually need to fit the whole thing inside a phone to give it light-field abilities.
"The whole front section of the camera is a zoom lens," he explains, adding that the actual sensor part is held in the seam between the anodised aluminium and the rubber top of the Lytro camera. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a small glass slide. This is the secret, he says, to making Lytro so special. It's the light-field sensor.
It's no bigger than the diminutive nano-SIM you'd expect to find in an iPhone 5 and it's what you need to make light-field possible. This is the answer to the million-dollar question: putting Lytro into a mobile phone is easier than we could have ever imagined. Sure it still requires research and extensive testing, but the marriage of these technologies isn't entirely absurd, after all.
"The compactness of the sensors is very, very small, so that means you can put it in a number of different things," he tells me. Vendors are already queuing up to put it in their devices:
"There's been tremendous amounts of inbound interest from all industry players in all ecosystems. From components [manufactuers]...all the way to systems with cell phones and stuff like that," he adds.
We're still only on the first step of a light-field journey, but a future with light-field smartphones is a future you won't have to wait long for.