New camera technology lets you shoot first, focus later

Startup Lytro's camera lets photographer and viewers shift focus after shot

Who knows whether anyone will actually buy this camera in an age where every smart phone already is one, but the pictures it produces are unlike anything my meager photographic skills have created with a point-and-shoot.

By transferring the power of “light field photography” from supercomputers to the palm of your hand, a startup called Lytro promises to enable the creation of pictures that can be refocused – say from the Little Leaguer in the foreground to your child in the outfield – after the shot and with a click of the mouse.

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The best way to understand what Lytro has done is to click on a few of its sample pictures, which will be sprinkled throughout this post. Here’s one that demonstrates the foreground/background capability:

A story in the New York Times provides the background about the company:

Lytro’s founder and chief executive is Ren Ng, 31. His achievement, experts say, has been to take research projects of recent years — requiring perhaps 100 digital cameras lashed to a supercomputer — and squeeze that technology into a camera headed for the consumer market later this year.

Mr. Ng explained the concept in 2006 in his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University, which won the worldwide competition for the best doctoral dissertation in computer science that year from the Association for Computing Machinery. Since then Mr. Ng has been trying to translate the idea into a product that can be brought to market — and building a team of people to do it.

Here’s a shot that shows what we’ve all known in our hearts … Elvis lives:

This is how Lytro’s Web site explains the technology for the layman:

The team at Lytro is completing the job of a century’s worth of theory and exploration about light fields. Lytro’s engineers and scientists have taken light fields out of the lab – miniaturizing a roomful of cameras tethered to a supercomputer and making it fit in your pocket

The light field is a core concept in imaging science, representing fundamentally more powerful data than in regular photographs. The light field fully defines how a scene appears. It is the amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space – it’s all the light rays in a scene. Conventional cameras cannot record the light field.

Recording light fields requires an innovative, entirely new kind of sensor called a light field sensor. The light field sensor captures the color, intensity and vector direction of the rays of light. This directional information is completely lost with traditional camera sensors, which simply add up all the light rays and record them as a single amount of light.

By substituting powerful software for many of the internal parts of regular cameras, light field processing introduces new capabilities that were never before possible. Sophisticated algorithms use the full light field to unleash new ways to make and view pictures.

Relying on software rather than components can improve performance, from increased speed of picture taking to the potential for capturing better pictures in low light. It also creates new opportunities to innovate on camera lenses, controls and design.

The way we communicate visually is evolving rapidly, and people’s expectations are changing in lockstep. Light field cameras offer astonishing capabilities. They allow both the picture taker and the viewer to focus pictures after they’re snapped, shift their perspective of the scene, and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D views. With these amazing capabilities, pictures become immersive, interactive visual stories that were never before possible – they become living pictures.

If you want more details, here is the dissertation by Lytro CEO Ng that started it all.

And here’s a picture of a “wushu guru.”

The company has yet to reveal what its camera will cost, and not being much of a shutterbug myself, it’s unlikely that any price will entice me.

However, I am looking forward to seeing the pictures the rest of you take.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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