Snap­shot of the fu­ture

An Aus­tralian has changed dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy as we know it, writes Jen­nifer Dud­ley-ni­chol­son

Herald Sun - Switched On - - Front Page -

IT IS the most in­no­va­tive cam­era in decades, ca­pa­ble of chang­ing the way peo­ple take pho­tos, and the way they view them. Stand­ing be­hind the lens? An Aus­tralian man and Stan­ford Univer­sity award­win­ner who friends de­scribe as ‘‘ one of the smartest peo­ple around’’.

The Lytro cam­era, re­leased in limited num­bers in the US this year, in­tro­duces tech­nol­ogy never be­fore used in a con­sumer cam­era.

Sim­ply ex­plained, the Lytro cam­era cap­tures ev­ery pos­si­ble fo­cal point when you press its shut­ter but­ton, let­ting users re­fo­cus images af­ter they are taken.

Users can tap a fin­ger on the cam­era’s viewfinder, or mouse-click on a com­puter screen, to change the fo­cus of a Lytro photo.

Ask a sub­ject to hold a bug close to the cam­era, for ex­am­ple, and you can switch a photo’s fo­cus from the in­sect to the per­son hold­ing it. Snap a group photo and you can make any in­di­vid­ual the fo­cus of the im­age.

The com­pany be­hind the new cam­era calls these images ‘‘ liv­ing pic­tures’’.

For­mer Syd­neysider Dr Ren Ng de­vel­oped the Lytro cam­era af­ter mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to spe­cialise in light-field imag­ing at Stan­ford Univer­sity. Light field is the con­cept that light trav­els in all di­rec­tions through ev­ery point in space.

In the late ’ 90s, Stan­ford’s Dr Ben­nett Wil­burn de­vel­oped a way to cap­ture light field in an im­age by us­ing a wall of 100 cam­eras, a pow­er­ful com­puter and imag­ing soft­ware that pieced to­gether the cap­tured pho­to­graphs.

Ng told Switched On he ex­panded on this con­cept, and cre­ated a con­sumer-friendly ver­sion, by com­bin­ing his spe­cial­ity with his hobby.

‘‘ I was in a PHD pro­gram at Stan­ford Univer­sity, study­ing light-field the­ory as it re­lates to com­puter graph­ics,’’ he said. ‘‘ I was also into pho­tog­ra­phy pretty heav­ily in my spare time and I re­alised that light-field tech­nol­ogy had the po­ten­tial to solve some of the is­sues I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with tra­di­tional dig­i­tal cam­eras.

‘‘ I switched my re­search to fo­cus on fig­ur­ing out how to minia­turise a room­ful of cam­eras teth­ered to a su­per­com­puter into the body of a cam­era.’’

Ng’s first light-field cam­era ef­fort was a medium-for­mat cam­era pro­duced for his PHD; a the­sis that earned Ng the ACM Doc­toral Dis­ser­ta­tion Award for com­puter sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing.

Col­leagues en­cour­aged him to fur­ther de­velop his cam­era and cre­ate a start-up busi­ness around it: daunt­ing for a per­son un­fa­mil­iar with the busi­ness world and as an Aus­tralian study­ing in the US.

‘‘ I was reluc­tant to start the com­pany that would be­come Lytro, pri­mar­ily due to my aca­demic back­ground,’’ he says. ‘‘ But I had sev­eral en­tre­pre­neur­ial-minded friends who re­ally pushed me into it, kick­ing and scream­ing.’’

Ng founded the com­pany, then known as Re­fo­cus Imag­ing, in 2006 and, though he ap­proached other firms about the tech­nol­ogy, even meet­ing with lu­mi­nar­ies in­clud­ing the late Ap­ple founder Steve Jobs, he de­cided to go it alone.

The final cam­era, avail­able in 4GB and 8GB ca­pac­i­ties, achieves its unique abil­ity to re­fo­cus pho­tos through tiny lenses in front a stan­dard im­age sen­sor. These mi­cro-lenses cap­ture the colour, in­ten­sity and di­rec­tion of light rays.

An im­age pro­ces­sor at the back trans­lates this in­for­ma­tion into a photo and adapts it to dif­fer­ent fo­cal planes.

Users can in­spect Lytro images on a com­puter screen us­ing free soft­ware avail­able for Ap­ple Macs, and these can be shared di­rectly to Face­book or to a web­site. They can be viewed, and re­fo­cused, on any com­puter or smart­phone.

Though the Lytro cam­era be­gan ship­ping to US cus­tomers in Fe­bru­ary, its pop­u­lar­ity has meant there is still a two-month wait on de­liv­ery.

Ng says the com­pany is work­ing ‘‘ on ex­pand­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally’’ and de­liv­er­ing his cre­ation to Australia, in ad­di­tion to more in­no­va­tions, in­clud­ing light-field video cap­ture, 3D imag­ing and PC soft­ware.

‘‘ We say at Lytro, ‘ This is only the be­gin­ning’, be­cause we are con­stantly in­no­vat­ing dif­fer­ent ways to process light­field pic­tures to cre­ate new and in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences,’’ he says. ‘‘ For ex­am­ple, later this year we will re­lease a soft­ware up­date that will al­low users to ex­pe­ri­ence light-field pic­tures in 3D, and shift the per­spec­tive of the picture.’’

De­mand: The new Lytro dig­i­tal cam­era.

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