Lytro, Design, and the Future

September 30, 2012 at 8:31pm

Lytro is a light field camera startup with a consumer oriented product, the first of its kind to reach consumer markets. Founded by Ren Ng and applying of his graduate research, its conflation of theory and practical application a huge inspiration to me.


The uniquely innovative aspect of Lytro comes from its ability to capture and store data on a field of light going in multiple directions, enabling the reconstruction of focus after the picture has been taken. Lytro images have a proprietary format, which doesn't bother me much at this point because light field photos are too new to have standards. Still, the concept is extremely exciting. Dynamically changing a photograph after the fact doesn't even sound like something that's possible at first. It's like someone finally wrote the enhance function. I did a little experiment earlier out of curiosity (and complete lack of understanding about light fields) by facing two mirrors against each other and taking a picture with a Lytro camera. I wanted to see if I could focus on each layer of the mirror-ception separately. The results aren't terribly exciting, so I embedded a much prettier photo from the Lytro website gallery above. Basically, I could really only focus on the outside and inside of the mirror itself. This makes sense because the mirror itself has no depth despite its appearance, and it focuses like any other flat surface. Still, it's only the beginning of this technology, and, physics permitting, maybe that's something we can see in the future. I'd also like to see photoshopping of a Lytro image, whether it be direct or through deconstructing into discrete frames for each point of focus and editing like rotoscoping, which would be a total pain. Anyway, there's lots of possibilities here.


One of the biggest things that struck me about the Lytro camera is how it solves Karim Rashid's archetype problem as stated in the film Objectified. His observation that without film to define the shape of modern digital cameras there is no justification for its shape is extremely thought-provoking, and I refer back to it in my Academic Decathlon speech about path dependence. Lytro has no pretensions of trying to blend in with the rest of our digital cameras. It knows it's different, and it sets itself apart through both its form and its function. The design of the camera is an important step in breaking the path dependence of the digital camera, in parallel with the important technological strides it's making.

The Future

In this fascinating article addressing problems in camera design, the author notes the follow the leader effect prevalent in the industry: companies will take a new feature and iterate it to death. This is why I appreciate that the Lytro truly brings something fresh to the market. It's true that there are drawbacks to the format, mainly in resolution, and the proprietary overtures need to stop eventually, but that should improve with time. Time, of course, iterates constantly.