Lytro's had a rough go since introducing the world to its very cool light field capture technology just over four years ago in 2011. Following a few consumer camera flops, the company's rolling on to the pros. Immerge is perhaps the most sophisticated virtual reality camera yet.
In short, Immerge is a big arse 360-degree photography rig that uses Lytro's light field technology to capture video for virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. Lytro's not the first company to develop a system for capturing 360-video. Google teamed up with GoPro to develop a relatively simple rig, startups like Jaunt have their own proprietary solutions, and production companies have developed all manner of solutions for shooting everything from 360 commercials to very immersive porn.
All the existing capture systems have their drawbacks owing to the fact that they use many traditional video cameras and then stitch together the 2D footage into a 360-degree image. It's a neat trick, but it's not totally convincing.
Lytro thinks that it can leverage its light field technology to capture a computationally perfect 360-degree image. Shall we recap? Four years ago, Lytro introduced its sophisticated light field tech, which captured a reading of all of the light in a scene and then allowed you to re-focus an image after the fact. It's amazing technology, but implementing it in a consumer camera is expensive and really not that interesting to regular people. Applied to a problem like 360-degree video, however, Lytro thinks it might have some legs.
The core of Immerge is of course a camera that takes the existing VR camera concepts and multiplies them to the extreme. Immerge will essentially be a sphere with hundreds of cameras distributed over several rings that will capture light field data at a high frame rate. (Lytro's still finalising the exact specifications.) Remember, this camera is capturing a picture of the light in the scene, not the scene itself, which means the resulting videos will be endlessly immersive. When you move your head, Lytro's computational tech will figure out exactly what you should see. It will be, well, realistic. In theory anyway.
Obviously, this system will chew up tons of data -- for which Lytro has developed a special server. As a plus, Lytro says it plans to make editing tools that work with the software editors already use.
There's no price for the system yet -- it's expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Lytro envisions Immerge for professionals anyway, and they're more likely to rent the system when they need it.
Virtual reality tech is ploughing forward with the help of huge players like Facebook, Google, and Sony, but we're not quite there yet. The viewing hardware's not slick enough, and most of the available content is bogus. But there's every reason to believe that eventually we'll be strapping on goggles to do everything from playing games to shopping for apartments. Take us to the future, Lytro.