By Laura Shin
Posting in Science
One of the biggest frustrations of digital cameras -- the fact that they take precious time to focus -- is about to disappear.
A Silicon Valley start-up is set to change the way we take photos.
Later this year, Lytro will release a camera that lets you shoot now and focus later.
The company's groundbreaking technology resolves one of the biggest frustrations of digital cameras: the fact that they take precious time to focus, by which time your child has turned away from the camera or your pug has sauntered off or that passerby has walked into your panoramic of the beach.
As seen in the photo above (and the photos below), shots taken with a Lytro can be refocused on a computer screen to bring different elements of the scene into focus. For instance, in the image at the top, clicking on the woman in the background brings her into sharp relief, whereas clicking on the flowers in front draws them into focus. Or another area of the photo can be made the focal point.
How it works
Lytro allows post-shot refocusing by taking advantage of something that conventional cameras cannot: the light field. The light field consists of all of the light rays in a scene, meaning every single light ray traveling in every direction through every point in space.
Scientists have fantasized about light-field cameras for a century, but previous experiments in creating one required the equivalent of 100 digital cameras connected to a supercomputer.
The Lytro takes that 100-digital-cameras-plus-supercomputer capability and stuffs it into a regular-sized point-and-shoot.
The company does this with an innovative sensor called a light field sensor. The light field sensor takes in three pieces of data about each ray of light: its color, intensity and direction. Conventional camera sensors just add up all the light rays and record them as one amount of light instead of recording information about each ray.
In this The Wall Street Journal article,
[Lytro founder Ren Ng] 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.
On its web site, Lytro says its cameras "[substitute] powerful software for many of the internal parts of regular cameras.... Relying on software rather than components can improve performance, from increased speed of picture taking to the potential for capturing better pictures in low light." (The company will release a video explaining how the technology works at 8am PST.)
Because Lytro cameras capture so much light data, they can also create 3-D images that can then be viewed on a computer screen with 3-D glasses.
The idea for Lytro came from Ng's 2006 Ph.D. thesis at Stanford University, which was named that year's best doctoral dissertation in computer science worldwide from the Association for Computing Machinery.
He then founded the company, which has raised $50 million in funding from venture-capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, New Enterprise Associates and K9 Ventures.
While Lytro does not have a precise ship date or price yet, it plans to launch later this year and to sell the cameras on its own web site and on online retailers like Amazon.com. Ng says the camera will be priced for the consumer market, meaning it is likely to be a few hundred dollars.
The company will likely be the first to market, but it may not be the only player for long. Adobe Systems has developed prototype light field cameras and other big camera companies as well as startups, such as Pellican Imaging Corp. are entering the space.
In the New York Times, Ng said Lytro allows people to explore their photographs as never before. “They become interactive, living pictures,” he said.
See for yourself by clicking around in these shots below:
Jun 21, 2011
As one of a few Canadians who do not own a camera, I was most pleased to read about this new technology. Thanks so much for the comments and suggestions which will allow me to wait without guilt for the new and upcoming technology, which I will just have to have, so I am starting to save now for a future purchase. Warmest Regards, firstname.lastname@example.org Powell River, British Columbia, Canada
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Could be ground breaking. I wonder if it would be possible to bring near field, middle distance and background into focus at the same time so that everything would be sharp.
If I can remember from my ancient photography classes.(long before digital cameras) Depth of Field is the selected distance you are able to keep in focus. You can basically achieve this by changing your f stop up and lowering your speed to allow in more light. That is the one sentence explanation. I like this new camera. I hate missing my shots. I can't wait to get one.
I've seen photos that were in focus near and far. Seems I've heard about something called depth of field that has some effect on it. Perhaps some can explain better.
I think the idea may have some potential. I'll just wait and see if the quality is there for the price. I know that it will have to be very good for me to replace my DSLR with. However, I do use point and shoot now cameras now as auxiliary equipment and will consider one of these when I upgrade again.
This seems to be a great advance. The demo pictures were amazing. However, something seems to be missing. "Stupid" jchandshaw above actually has a point. These photos can only have one, narrow depth of field in focus at one time. What if you want to have everything in focus? There presently is a way to do this. Several pics of the same scene are taken with varying near/far points of focus (static scene, of course). Then software like "Helicon Focus" combines your many pics into one resulting in EVERYTHING in focus. Lytro needs another step. For instance, why would I want a final picture of the pink flower in the foreground and a barely discernible woman in the background....or why would I want a final picture of her in focus with a pink blotch in front. This seems to be, at this stage, a novelty, too dependent on a computer to view the pictures...and a pain in the arse, I might add.
Will it allow you to save the pic in JPEG format after focusing the way you want or is it only good for viewing on the computer?
Why don't they just make EVERYTHING in focus...just like your eyes do, why does it need to be out-of-focus anywhere???
I presume that depth of focus can be controlled. Set it to infinity for surveillance/security applications and to whatever you want for artistic work. Brilliant!
The photos are composed specifically to show off the camera's capabilities. For example, I'd be unlikely to take a picture of a basketball game and want the chain link fence to be in focus. If I wanted to take a picture with everything in focus I'd use a very small aperture. But sometimes I want a part of a picture to stand out by being in focus. Being able to do my photo composition sitting at my desk instead of fumbing with my camera would be great.
I would imagine it would allow you to save them as JPEGs after you've processed them...this would be rather useless otherwise. I'm more interested in the resolution of these photos...if they're going to be pitifully low for the price paid, then the tech is a ways off yet. But the pictures here look pretty nice. Hopefully they're a good example of what the camera itself will be able to take.
Besides, we would lose alot of artistic value if everything was in focus at once, and it would be a nightmare information overload if our eyes/brains did that
Hold a finger up at arms length and look at it. Now, look at something further away. Notice how your finger is no longer in focus? You are changing your eyes' focal point. Did you think about your comment and give it an inflammatory title on purpose, are you just an idiot, or are you just a typical forum troll?
The NYT article quotes photojournalist Richard Koci Hernandez who tested one of the prototypes. He says the picture resolution was indistinguishable from that of his other point-and-shoots, a Canon and a Nikon, so it seems the resolution is just as good as what you'd get with a model from one of the well-established brands. Laura
This is actually why I am liking the ability to leave everything in focus at once. When you look at a large photo, your vision is only focused on what the photographer wanted you to focus on. When a photo is taken by an artist trying to bring a certain thing to the viewer's attention, that's fine. But there are people like me who look at a photo and always say, 'I wonder what's going on over there'. For us, the amount of information that could be had, by slowly investigated every little thing going on would be really cool in certain situations.