Radical new 'focus later' camera begins shipping

Mar 01, 2012 by Chris Lefkow
A radical new camera that lets you adjust the focus after you take a picture began shipping this week.

A radical new camera that lets you adjust the focus after you take a picture began shipping this week.

The Lytro is the creation of Ren Ng, who started work on the digital camera while studying for a doctorate in computer science at Stanford University in California.

The telescope-shaped camera uses what is known as "light field technology" to allow the focal point of a to be changed after the picture is taken, a feature that Lytro calls "shoot now, focus later."

Clicking on a Lytro picture displayed on a allows a viewer to shift the focus from a subject in the foreground, for example, to a subject in the background.

The Lytro can do this because it uses powerful sensors to capture significantly more light than a conventional camera.

Lytro chief executive Ng, who was born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, describes the images as "living pictures" because of the ability to manipulate them.

"This is a very exciting time for our growing Lytro team," he said in a blog post to mark the shipments of the first models. "We finally get to see how you use the Lytro camera to create and share your own living pictures."

When Lytro pictures are shared online, the "light field engine" travels with each image so anyone can interact with them on desktop and or on smartphones.

The 16-gigabyte model of the camera, which is about the same size as a stick of butter and can fit easily in a pocket, costs $499 and can hold 750 pictures. An 8GB version costs $399 and can capture 350 images.

The first reviews of the Lytro came out on Thursday and were full of praise for the the camera represents.

"The consumer point-and-shoot has just been reinvented -- not tweaked, or remodeled, but actually re-thought from top to bottom," said Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal.

"I consider it a revolution in consumer photography," Mossberg said.

At the same time, the Journal's influential technology reviewer did point out some of the Lytro's limitations.

Mossberg noted that for now at least Lytro pictures can only be imported to a Macintosh computer with its accompanying software and the process is slow because of the relatively large files.

The Mountain View, California-based Lytro has promised that a version for computers powered by Microsoft's Windows operating systems will be available later.

Sam Grobart of The New York Times described the refocusing capabilities of the Lytro as "astonishing" and "fairly mind-blowing."

"Refocusing a Lytro image, I felt like one of those CIA agents in the movies who is looking at satellite images and asks some technician to 'enhance' the picture until Carlos the Jackal comes into focus," Grobart wrote.

He also highlighted drawbacks with the current model.

"While refocusing is its own interesting tool, that's the only tool you have at this point -- adding a filter or importing the image into Photoshop remains impossible," Grobart said.

"Should Lytro's engineers refine light-field photography into something more versatile and cheaper (imagine this on a smartphone), it may turn out to be a game changer," he said.

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User comments : 8

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not rated yet Mar 02, 2012
Can the photos be adjusted so the entire photo is in focus. (I'm sure they can, but I haven't seen it stated in any of the articles about the camera.)
not rated yet Mar 02, 2012
If everything fails you could focus each depth individually, extract the sharp pixels via contrast filtering, and do an overlay of the images.
3 / 5 (2) Mar 02, 2012
I've seen photos of the camera, and it's shaped like a stick of butter. I believe it has to have a "deep" form factor because of the technology, and probably can't be shrunk so that it would fit in a flat phone. The Mac-only thing is also a sticking point.
4 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
I'm wondering how this would apply to astronomical images. If it gathers significantly more light than normal digital capture, it could be really effective.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
I'm wondering how this would apply to astronomical images

Depth for an astronomical object is 'infinite'. The rays of light are, to a very good approximation, parallel when they get here. I'm pretty sure that this technology wouldn't give much benfit in that area except fro shots of close-by objects (flybys of planets/moons by sattelites, solar observations, ...)

I've seen photos of the camera, and it's shaped like a stick of butter.

Seen that, too. My guess is the sides are also lined with CCD sensors or that the path of the light is split into several, optically different paths to get the spatial light field infomation.
not rated yet Mar 02, 2012
This reminds me a lot of what a holography group did at a research institute I was at.

They did light field holography - which is a very weird thing. You take a holographic image (monochrome) of a person and project it into empty space. By moving a special, milky plate of glass through that space you could focus on exactly that plane of the holographic image (while seeing everything that was beyond it in either direction as a blurry overlay). Sort of cool. The image was there, yet not there in empty space.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 02, 2012
If everything fails you could focus each depth individually, extract the sharp pixels via contrast filtering, and do an overlay of the images

Only if you did it as a screen capture and then open the screen capture in photoshop, but that would cost you so much image quality that it would suck for anything other than display on a monitor. You wouldn't want to make photo prints at that resolution. It says that you can't open the actual files with photoshop or modify them in any way other than the focus.
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
OK, this is old, and no one is reading it anymore, but just in case...
Instead of astronomy, then, how about microscopy? You could focus on specific structures after the fact without having to dig up a fresh sample later down the road to take another look.

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