August 7, 2022

A Start-Up’s Camera Lets You Take Shots First and Focus Later

The company’s technology allows a picture’s focus to be adjusted after it is taken. While viewing a picture taken with a Lytro camera on a computer screen, you can, for example, click to bring people in the foreground into sharp relief, or switch the focus to the mountains behind them.

But is Lytro’s technology just a neat feature, or is it the next big thing in cameras?

The founding team of the Silicon Valley start-up and investors who have put in $50 million are betting on the latter. The technology has won praise from computer scientists and raves from early users of its prototype camera.

“We see technology companies all the time, but it’s rare that someone comes along with something that is this much of a breakthrough,” said Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, a major investor in Lytro. “It’s superexciting.”

Lytro’s founder and chief executive is Ren Ng, 31. His achievement, experts say, has been to take research projects of recent years — requiring perhaps 100 digital cameras lashed to a supercomputer — and squeeze that technology into a camera headed for the consumer market later this year.

Mr. Ng explained the concept in 2006 in his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University, which won the worldwide competition for the best doctoral dissertation in computer science that year from the Association for Computing Machinery. Since then Mr. Ng has been trying to translate the idea into a product that can be brought to market — and building a team of people to do it.

The Lytro camera captures far more light data, from many angles, than is possible with a conventional camera. It accomplishes that with a special sensor called a microlens array, which puts the equivalent of many lenses into a small space. “That is the heart of the breakthrough,” said Pat Hanrahan, a Stanford professor, who was Mr. Ng’s thesis adviser but is not involved in Lytro.

But the wealth of raw light data comes to life only with sophisticated software that lets a viewer switch points of focus. This allows still photographs to be explored as never before. “They become interactive, living pictures,” Mr. Ng said. He thinks a popular use may be families and friends roaming through different perspectives on pictures of, say, vacations and parties posted on Facebook (Lytro will have a Facebook app).

For a photographer, whether amateur or professional, the Lytro technology means that the headaches of focusing a shot go away. Richard Koci Hernandez, a photojournalist, said that when he tried out a prototype earlier this year, he immediately recognized the potential impact.

“You just concentrate on the image and composition, but there’s no need to worry about focus anymore,” Mr. Hernandez said. “That’s something you do later.”

“That was the aha! moment for me,” said Mr. Hernandez, an assistant professor of new media at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is game-changing.”

Mr. Hernandez, who is not affiliated with Lytro, was one of several photographers who tested prototypes. His model, he said, was sheathed in a black plastic shell, so he did not see its design. But he said it was the size of a standard point-and-shoot camera. The picture resolution, he added, was indistinguishable from that of his other point-and-shoots, a Canon and a Nikon.

Eliminating any loss of resolution in a camera like Lytro’s, which is capturing light data from many angles, is a real advance, said Shree Nayar, a professor at Columbia University and an expert in computer vision. Mr. Nayar is familiar with Mr. Ng’s work, but he said he had not seen anything Lytro has done in more than a year.

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