Seemingly out of nowhere, Lytro has arrived on the scene, promising a camera that records light in a radically different way to current sensors, and will allow a whole new type of photography. It's a technology called "light field photography" and when you snap a photo, you can go back and chose the focal point.
Most camera sensors record light as it hits the sensor, saving each pixel as a color value. The new sensor would capture color, intensity and direction of every light ray — like recording the information as a vector rather than a pixel, thanks to the assistance of an array of microlenses. This would give users features and controls that we've never seen before, chief among them the ability to control the focus of the photo after you've taken it, as demonstrated in this gallery. What other benefits will you see? Here's the official description:
Shoot now, focus later: Because the camera captures the entire light field, there is no need to focus ahead of time. You can simply capture the moment, and adjust the focus later. This means you can concentrate on what’s happening in the scene, not fiddle with your camera. Lytro pictures can be focused to your liking days, weeks, even years after they’re taken.
Unparalleled speed: This is fast. Since the camera doesn’t focus before a photo is taken, you don’t miss important moments due to autofocus shutter lag.
Living pictures. When shared online, both the photographer and viewer can play with Lytro pictures, including changing the focus.
Low-light sensitivity: Everyone knows low light pictures are usually very entertaining, but they’re also pretty difficult to capture with a regular camera or cell phone. By using all of the available light in a scene, Lytro cameras capture great pictures in low light environments without use of a flash – from clubs to concerts to candlelit dinners.
Immersive 3D: Using the full light field, Lytro cameras will allow you to easily switch between 2D and 3D views or shift the perspective of the scene.
If this has you intrigued, you're not the only one. You can sign up for more Lytro information on their website, or read part of CEO Ren Ng's doctoral dissertation which formed the basis for this technology here. One of the more interesting sounding features is the ability to make 3D images from a single lens. For a demonstration of how this could work, you can see how this technology is used in an academic context here. Near the bottom of the page are a pair of flyarounds which show how it might function.
This isn't the first time we've seen an announcement of Light Field Photography. Earlier this year Pelican Imaging announced they were planning something similar for cellphones, using an array of 25 cameras to gather the data which could then be manipulated, though we've not heard anything about them since then.
Unfortunately, there's still a lot we don't know about this technology. The website promises a "portable and stylish" camera, but there aren't even any renders of what it might look like. Lytro also hasn't made any announcements about when it'll be available, what it will cost, or the image size — which might be the major downfall of this system. As Ng says in his thesis, "the main price behind this new kind of photography is the sacrifice of some image resolution to collect directional ray information."
For now, Lytro is playing its cards close to its chest, even those who tested the prototype didn't really get to see it. We're cautiously excited about this new tech, and the elimination of focus-lagging on consumer cameras, so we'll be sure to keep you informed as we hear more about it.