Man, I Hope Lytro Can Find A Good Use For Its Amazing Tech

Man, I Hope Lytro Can Find a Good Use For Its Amazing Tech

I've never been more impressed by something as useless as Lytro's incredible cameras. Let's hope the company can actually find something useful to do with it before it expires. Right now, the company's laying people off and going into survival mode.

When we first saw Lytro's "light field technology" back in 2011, I didn't even really understand it. Lytro cameras allow you to refocus photos after you have already taken them, and it works like sorcery. With a tap or a click, you can change the focus of your image from the foreground to the background. Did you focus on the lamp post instead of your fiance? Lytro lets you fix the error long after your trip to Italy is over. The concept was so big and new that I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it.

But as we've seen like a trillion times, incredible new technology and a functional prototype don't mean you'll ever see a finished product. So I was delighted when the concept actual came out, in the form of two different cameras with completely different designs.

But it wasn't a home run. The original Light Field Camera was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else. The rectangular box felt refreshingly new, but it lacked the refinement to really be viable as more than a novelty. And then last year, Lytro released the Illum, a much more sophisticated professional camera that employs the same light field technology. Cooler! Better! But it still fell flat. But the Illum is a big hunk of gadget that's basically worthless. No one should ever buy it because there's simply no reason to. Sure, selective focus powers are fun as extras in phones like the Galaxy S5, but not as a raison d'être.

Nobody wants a Lytro as it is. That's not just an opinion; the company is in trouble. We've confirmed a report that Lytro will layoff 25 to 50 of its 130 workers. Meanwhile, the company's taking $US50 million in funding in an effort to try to develop the business into that is awesome but also maybe worth buying. Lytro thinks maybe its tech could be useful for virtual reality, yet another technology that hasn't yet proven its utility to the mainstream consumer.

Can two halves make a whole? If Lytro has a clear vision for where its technology is going to go, it hasn't articulated it. I asked about plans for virtual reality, cameras, and other consumer products, but haven't heard back. It seems like the answer is a solid ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Still, I desperately want Lytro to succeed. Light field tech is truly inspiring in all of the ways I want technology to be inspiring. It makes you heave with squeaky sighs of astonishment. Holy shit, how is that possible? You mean I can focus ANYWHERE?!!???!?? It took a room full of geniuses to make light field tech work, and now all that development is teetering on the edge of extinction.

Not every impressive technology is meant for greatness. And if Lytro can't find a great problem to solve, it may as well not exist. But sometimes, a technology is so cool that you can't help but get a little bit emotionally attached. Come on Lytro, won't you please pull through?

Image by Michael Hession



    If they could get past the limitations, the amazingly smaller zoom lens sizes alone would make it worthwhile.

    Filming with this tech, then using eye tracking to adjust the focal point is the only useful thing I can see coming of this. So it's potentially quite cool for VR video.

    But I don't really think vr video will be much of a thing, at least not cinematically. Removing control of aspects such as perspective and focus from the film maker drastically cuts into their ability to convey meaning to the viewer. How do you indirectly tell someone what's important, where to look, without those tools?

    I'm no oracle, I understand technology will find new ways, and art will advance with it, and every decade brings revelations you couldn't possibly predict, but I'm sceptical of this particular field in the short term.

    Last edited 26/02/15 3:06 pm

    I think their mistake was developing the technology as a stand-alone device. If they spent that time working out how to add this technology to existing, well established cameras like smart phones and DSLR's, they could license the technology and not have to waste resources on building hardware. I'm sure pro photographers would love the ability to adjust their focus after the fact, but they're not going to give up pro DSLR features to do it.

      But would pros use it? Don't they already know what the focus of their shot is going to be?

      I'm no pro, but I did plenty of product photography at uni, and I never once wanted to fiddle the dof after the fact (and i grew up on film cameras).

      But I do like to futz about with the focus on my HTC one. I think the tech is much more impressive to mobiles, both in terms of their limiting hardware and the more playful (if not necessarily savvy) userbase.

      The only problem there is that the phone makers have already caught on and provided enough of the ability of the lytro to satisfy people. Would they be willing to part with more money for a better experience? I doubt it.

        It would certainly have its uses for pros, not so much for in the studio but definitely out in the field.

        Something I learned about recently was "focus stacking", which is a pro technique where the photographer is shooting a landscape in low light, wide aperture, and because of this the depth of field - the depth of the image at maximum sharpness - is incredibly narrow. So to get maximum sharpness throughout the image from foreground to background they will painstakingly take multiple shots, focusing slightly further each time, then stack the images together in photoshop. Lytro could potentially negate that whole process.

        Also when you're out in the field, sometimes shots happen spontaneously, and it's a horrible feeling to get home and find that once in a lifetime shot (or someone's wedding kiss photo) was poorly focused. It would certainly rescue some otherwise unusable shots. It would probably be the kind of thing you'd not use often, but be glad you had when you needed it.

    I don't see why this can't be used to replace current Infrared Sensing tech being used to sense depth.
    If a movie-quality camera could be used to get every photon's direction, couldn't that be used for filming 3D movies with a single lens, or replace the tech in Kinect-style devices, etc?

    probably be like Amiga before it got bought out by Commodore.
    Or Alienware when it got bought out by Dell.

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