Hands-On: Lytro Light-Field Camera Offers Flip Simplicity, Futuristic Features

CEO and Founder Ren Ng introduces the Lytro
Earlier this year, camera start-up Lytro provided an enticing sneak peek of what their first product could do. Using a light-field sensor--the likes of which had previously only been seen in science labs and supercomputer-connected arrays of hundreds of cameras--the camera could record data about light travelling in every direction through 3D space. In practical terms, that means that the camera's photos can be refocused after they're shot.

It's the stuff of sci-fi. The only problem: Lytro only demoed the output of their light-field cameras. The device itself, its price, and the details about everything in between were all kept under wraps until today.

And it's looking good.

Ren Ng, the founder and CEO of Lytro, took the lid off of Lytro's first "light-field camera for everyone" at an event in San Francisco Wednesday. The camera's physical design is as out-of-the-box as the light-field technology itself: The square, tube-like device measures just under four-and-a-half inches long, looking more like a miniature telescope than a traditional camera.

Holding the futuristic Lytro
After some brief hands-on time with the camera, I came away impressed. This is certainly a device that has Flip-like potential to change a chunk of the camera market and make using a standalone camera rather than a cellphone camera an attractive option. As complicated as the technology behind the camera is, using it is dead simple. It's light, pocketable, and well-constructed; its user interface is straight-forward, and interacting with the camera's output by clicking different points to focus is a fun process. (There's a gallery of interactive images on Lytro's site.)

Similar to the process of recording 3D images and video, using the camera forces the shooter to think differently about how they're composing a shot. The physical depth of the scene and the distance between objects in the scene are more important factors to consider than the traditional "rule of thirds" method of shot composition. The camera's minimum focus distance is around two inches away from the lens, and when refocusing the images after they were offloaded to a computer, the camera was able to distinguish and refocus on objects about an inch apart.

Its specs are also surprisingly high-end given the device's size. For one, the Lytro camera has an 8X optical zoom, which is roomy for a pocketable device. More importantly, the camera has a very bright, constant F2.0 aperture; normally, long-zoom cameras pinch down the aperture to narrower, less-effective light-gathering settings as they reach the telephoto end of the zoom. Ng says that the wide aperture at both ends of the zoom helps the Lytro take great photos in low light.

Your average camera measures its sensor resolution in megapixels, but this Lytro camera does things differently there, as well. The Lytro camera has a resolution of 11 megarays, meaning that the camera's sensor is capable of capturing the data for 11 million rays of light per picture. And because the camera doesn't have to autofocus before it shoots--you focus after the fact--shutter response is immediate.



Borrowing a page from the Flip camcorder line, the Lytro camera comes with its own image-management software loaded onto the device; once you plug the camera in to a compatible computer, the software auto-installs and shows a gallery of images you can interact with. However, at launch, the camera's embedded software will only work with a Mac (OS 10.6 or later). Lytro says the company is working on a Windows-compatible version of the management software, but no release date has been set at this time.

However, bypassing the software to drag and drop images onto Windows PCs may be possible, although the company doesn't officially support that practice. Ng claims that the "light-field engine" needed for viewing, refocusing, and interacting with the images is embedded in each image file, making it possible to embed the images in interactive, refocusable form on sites such as Facebook. An "upload to Facebook" option is included directly in the Lytro's embedded photo-management app, and the company also offers free photo storage on Lytro.com. The camera uses a proprietary image format (.LFP), and file sizes are about in line with RAW format photos: around 15MB per shot.

In addition to the "shoot first, focus later" capabilities offered by the Lytro camera, the software also allows you to output photos as 3D stills and 2D JPG images after you decide on a focus point for an image.

Lytros from every angle.
The Lytro gives a subtle nod to Apple's iPod, too, as the sleekly designed camera features fixed internal storage, a fixed battery, and a user interface designed for simplicity. There are only three buttons on the device's rubberized grip: A shutter button on the top, a touch-controlled zoom slider on the top, and a power button on the bottom. Its square, 1.46-inch-diagonal touchscreen display is very small and low-res by today's standards. Previewing photos on the device itself and changing focus points on the image requires a lot of squinting, but once you offload the shots to a computer, the experience is a lot more impressive and immersive.

Alas, these futuristic cameras won't be out in time for the holidays, although you can preorder them immediately on Lytro.com in two storage capacities and three different colors: an 8GB version (which the company says holds up to 350 photos) in electric blue and graphite gray for $400, and a red 16GB version that costs $500 and holds up to 750 photos.

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