Snapshot of the future
An Australian has changed digital photography as we know it, writes Jennifer Dudley-nicholson
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.