On Lytro

The Lytro Camera
© Lytro

Since it’s made its web debut late last year, Lytro has been making rounds on the web as the next generation game-changing camera. Earlier this week, they finally introduced their first line of consumer camera, also called Lytro, and gave a demo at the AsiaD conference.

Lytro reads not just the light, but also the three-dimensional information and records it as raw data on their 8 megaray[1. Lytro’s version of megapixel] sensor as a light field construct.

After you download the data via their proprietary software[2. Mac only now, Windows version in the work], you can then explore the depth-of-field of the image, the same way you would focus a scene with your regular camera, only this one happens after you take the shots.

Light field photography isn’t new. Engineers and scientists have played with this in labs for years, perhaps in the last one or two decade, but Lytro is the first one to bring this to the consumer market.

Though it is a scientific breakthrough, I don’t see Lytro as a disruptive consumer product.

Digital photography takes the niché origin of this art form to an unprecedented mass. it takes the image from print and galleries to the now-ubiquitous screens. You take a picture, share it and everyone can see it without installing any new plugins, software or viewer. It is instant, simple and easy.

Lytro, on the other hand is an entirely new dimension. It is more complex and the product it presents has much more information that requires a level of complexion that distort photography as we know it.

At the time of this writing, lytro-captured images require a Mac with the Lytro desktop software installed to be processed and viewed. And there’s no final state of the image as each and every one of them is refocus-able. Such state of indefiniteness serves a different purpose and a different kind of audience.

On the other hand, the bold new design of this Lytro camera raises the question of practicality and usability.

Let’s pretend that you have read the manual, and someone at the shop has given you a quick lesson to use the camera. How usable is the touch-based operation on the field? Is it operable with a sweaty palm? Or with a glove on? Will someone be able to use it when you ask a stranger to take your photo with it?

This kind of over-simplification sort of beats the purpose of a camera. The company seems too eager to cash-in the way Apple does with the iPhone and the iPad. The consumer market is very attractive, but they are also a very volatile, unpredictable as an entry point for groundbreaking scientific inventions. But what if this whole Lytro-thing is more suitable for the professionals?

Think archeology, science, medical, filmmaking, investigative research, or any field that requires a time-proof recording of informations. Imagine lytro-endoscopy, where a doctor takes one image and study every part of our ingestion organ one click at a time without having the endoscope dive to every part of it. Imagine where an archaeologist takes one picture and study all surface of their research without having him/her take multiple images of a single scene. Imagine police cameras where they don’t need image-enhancing software to see the license plate of a car of a crime scene snapshot? Imagine shooting a movie where we no longer need to follow focus but have it done in post-production.

Nonetheless, it’s an exciting new technology. Lytro opens up a new world of photography that would open up people’s imagination. And imagination is a powerful force that bring us the impossible.

It is just the beginning.