Start-Up’s Camera Allows Photos to Be Refocused


POSTED IN Blog, Photography

A Silicon Valley start-up is expected on Wednesday to unveil plans to sell a new kind of still camera which generates an image that can be refocused by viewers after its creation.

The closely held company, Lytro Inc., says its technology will offer consumers an array of benefits—including all but eliminating focus problems in taking pictures and allowing users to generate 3-D images with one rather than two cameras.

LytroLytro’s camera lets users shift focus to the foreground or background.



Lytro’s approach springs from Stanford University research into what are often called light-field cameras, which capture much more information to create an image than conventional digital cameras. While scientists have discussed the underlying concept for a century, most previous experiments have required as many as a hundred cameras and heavy-duty computing power.

In 2006, Lytro CEO Ren Ng wrote a doctoral dissertation at Stanford about ways to dramatically reduce the size and cost of the technology. Lytro isn’t disclosing details before releasing its first cameras later this year, but Mr. Ng says their pricing will be competitive with today’s consumer cameras.

Selling standalone cameras would seem an uphill battle these days, now that picture-taking capability is a built-in feature of even low-priced cellphones. Cisco Systems Inc.’s recent decision to close its Flip video-camera unit was largely blamed by analysts on the fact that many smartphones can now shoot high-definition video.

A key difference, Mr. Ng said, is that the images taken using a Flip or other video cameras looked the same to most viewers. Not so with Lytro’s technology, he said. “These pictures are unprecedented,” he said.

Photos taken by prototype Lytro cameras, when viewed through most current Web browsers, allow users to click on different parts of an image to bring different subjects into focus.

Lytro lists other benefits. For one thing, since images are focused after the fact, users don’t have to spend time focusing before shooting. Nor do they have to worry if they wound up focusing on the wrong thing.

The technology works in very low light without a flash, Lytro said, while 3-D glasses can add a particularly vivid effect—simulated three-dimensional images that users can adjust to show different perspectives.

Conventional digital cameras essentially record the total sum of light rays from a scene as they hit an image sensor, Mr. Ng said. A light-field camera records the color, intensity and direction of rays individually. He compared the approach to audio recording; instead of recording multiple musicians all at once, modern multitrack studios record them separately so that the volume and other effects can be independently adjusted after the fact to create a sound mix.

A key to Lytro’s strategy is to use the increasing resolution found in the image sensors in conventional digital cameras, capability that Mr. Ng said most amateur photographers don’t fully exploit.The company developed a special array of lenses that fits in front of image sensors and helps break the image apart into individual rays, along with software to help reassemble aand manipulate it.

Lytro, founded in 2006, has attracted $50 million in funding from venture-capital firms. that include Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, New Enterprise Associates and K9 Ventures. Leading its technology team are Kurt Akeley, formerly of Silicon Graphics Inc., and Adam Fineberg, formerly chief architect for the WebOS software developed by Palm Inc., which is now part of Hewlett-PackardCo.

Lytro won’t lack for competition, predicted Winston Hendrickson, vice president of products for software maker Adobe Systems Inc., which has developed prototype light field cameras for research purposes. Besides the technology departments of big camera companies, other startups are pursuing related technology, he said. One is Pellican Imaging Corp., which in February announced a prototype of what it calls an array camera for use in mobile devices.

“I think that there is broad agreement that light field will be the future,” Mr. Hendrickson said. “What people have different points of view about is when that will happen.”

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