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Groundbreaking camera lets you shoot now, focus later

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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 company

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:

via The New York Times

Photos: Lytro

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure