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Lytro Looks At A Future Beyond Photography

A new platform will allow partners, including NASA, to use light-field data in new sectors.

Lytro Looks At A Future Beyond Photography
[Photo: Flickr user Max Braun]

Lytro, the pioneer which introduced the world to light-field photography, wants to show it’s not a one-trick pony.

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The company dazzled consumers in 2011 by demonstrating how it was possible to shoot now and focus later. Yet no matter how excited people were about capturing more light and data in their images, adoption was limited. Serious photographers weren’t clamoring for the new-age camera, which faced shortcomings with software compatibility and image quality–the latter problem Lytro aimed to solve with Illum, a $1,599 high-end camera introduced in April capable of shooting 40-megaray resolution images. (Lytro uses the term megaray to quantify light-field data; by contrast, its first-generation camera had an 11-megaray sensor.)

Illum is already driving two-thirds of Lytro’s annual revenue, though the company did not offer any specific figures. Lytro is also expanding internationally, launching in Japan earlier this week in addition to Germany, France, U.K., and Australia.

Now, Lytro is ready to show off what it’s really had in mind all along: new uses for light-field technology which don’t have anything to do with taking snapshots. “The long-term trajectory is to transform the world from this legacy 2-D paradigm to this rich-capture 3-D computational photography paradigm,” CEO Jason Rosenthal told Fast Company. “Part of the way we’re trying to do that is by bringing light field to categories beyond photography.”

The Lytro Platform, available Thursday to developers starting at $20,000, will let partners use more powerful light-collecting cameras in new ways. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for instance, is working on using Lytro technology to allow rovers to analyze soil samples on other planets. Rosenthal pointed to other use cases in the works, including night vision gear for the military, cameras to monitor radiation levels, and an infant monitor that works in low-light conditions.

Imaging researchers using the Lytro Development Kit will have access to the technical underpinnings of Lytro’s cameras and software processing engine. Lytro will serve as a strategic partner, helping companies that make use of its platform design custom hardware and automate processes.

Rosenthal, who took the reins at Lytro in 2013, said it’s always been the company’s vision to use light-field data capture in scenarios outside photography. “If you talked to people inside the company, we talked about being on a mission to transform every sensor with a lens on it,” he said, pointing to the Illum as proof of the technology’s maturation. “We had so much success with [Lytro’s hardware and software] development platform that we took it, refined it, and created the LDK from it.”

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Currently about 10% of the 120-person company is dedicated to working on the platform, but Rosenthal said the two businesses are closely tied and Lytro remains dedicated to its camera line. The company plans to debut new camera products next year, though he declined to provide more details.

“The core focus and business for the company remains on the products like the Lytro Illum and future iterations of that,” he said. “You can think of the Lytro Platform as an extension of what we’re doing there.”

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About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal

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