This device is called the Lytro Field Camera (www.lytro.com) and what is so revolutionary about the camera is that it is a completely new way of taking photographs. Historically, photography was all about capturing light on a flat plane, initially a plate of glass and then strips of film. When digital cameras were first developed, they sought to mimic the functionality of film with a flat rectangle of light sensors called a Charge Coupled Device (CCD).
About 15 years ago research began at Stanford University in to capturing images in a new way. Researchers began trying to capture light fields, which back then required a room full of cameras and a supercomputer to process the results. There has been a lot of work going on over those 15 years and on October 20, 2011 that room full of equipment was replaced by the world’s first commercial Light Field Camera. I think that the two most significant aspects of this camera are the elimination of focus as we’ve come to understand it and the capability to choose to create either a 2D or 3D image from the same data.
It seems that the fundamental difference is in the Light Field Sensor, which is key to the camera, as it captures information on the colour and intensity of the light hitting it, but also the vector of where the light is coming from. It is this vector information, along with some customized software, that enables the new capabilities. The elimination of the focus point of a photograph reminds me of those movies where some grainy security camera image is manipulated by some actor to suddenly reveal stunning clarity where none existed before. This camera does that, but only with the images that it captures – your brand new $7000 Canon 1D X won’t give you what this $399 shooter will.
The finish and design of this camera almost makes you think it was designed by Apple - sweet, simple design with almost no protection of the lens from what I can tell. Like I said, this technology will transform photography, what I’m wondering is how the technology will transform video. Since the output is capable of rendering in 2D or 3D from the same source image data, perhaps in a few short years we’ll have HD3D TV where the image displayed will be 3D if the user wants to see it that way, leaving the viewing mode decision to the watcher rather than the producer. Consider the consequences of shipping a television show where users can decide for themselves which part of a show to keep in focus? I’m a fan of the Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker movies and TV shows of the 1980s like Airplane!, Top Secret!, Police Squad!, The Naked Gun, where there was often more than one thing happening in the scene at a time…imagine what this technology could empower in terms of gags that can only be seen if you focus on the far point of a scene, or the foreground?
One thing that is certain, this is technology that will transform our lives and culture in a way similar to the smartphone, as its capability, ease of use and profound change in how we see and experience the world around through our media devices us will impact television, movies, and the photos and videos we create at home.