Back in October 2011, I attended the press conference at which Lytro announced the first consumer camera based on light-field technology. I was dazzled both by the science–the camera captured all the light waves in a scene, giving it an understanding of dimensionality which no other still camera possessed–and its implementation in a camera unlike any the world had seen before.
I thought Lytro might change photography forever. So far, however, it’s been a cult item at best, not a big-time success. And on Wednesday, Re/code‘s Ina Fried reported that the company is shifting its focus. Though it’s announcing $50 million in new funding, it’s also laying off employees and saying that it intends to explore light-field technology’s applications in new categories such capturing virtual-reality imagery. (The company had already hinted at the new direction by creating a platform for non-photographic applications last year.)
Fried’s story quotes CEO Jason Rosenthal as saying that updates to the company’s Illum camera are on the way, as is a higher-resolution, third-generation version of its imaging technology. Still, the original Lytro vision that got me giddy in 2011 seems to be dead. Until I checked out the company’s website just now, I hadn’t realized that it had already moved its efforts entirely from its original $399 camera to the $1,599 Illum, a model aimed at well-heeled photography enthusiasts with an experimental bent. That, as much as today’s news, is a sign that the company has moved on from the mainstream consumer photography market.
Here are a few “living pictures” I took with Lytro’s first camera. You can play with them by tapping on different areas to refocus.
Digging out those pictures, I got excited by the potential of light-field photography all over again, So why didn’t Lytro turn out to be the next big thing? I can think of several reasons.
1. Things that are hard to explain are hard to sell. Light-field technology lets you refocus a photo after you’ve taken it. At first blush, that makes it sound like Lytro is about rescuing bad shots. Not really. Its living pictures are a form of storytelling, like an interactive composition which lets you focus on either the tiny insect in the foreground or the towering human in the background. That may simply be too complex a concept to understand to convey to someone shopping in the electronics section at Target.
2. Most people don’t want to own special-purpose cameras. In this era of amazingly good smartphone cameras, many folks don’t want to carry a standalone camera at all. Even if Lytro’s cameras had gotten cheaper rather than more expensive, they would have been a tough sell.
3.People who do buy cameras expect them to behave like cameras. The original Lytro, like Polaroid’s iconic SX-70 instant camera, looked nothing like other consumer cameras. It was a pocketable, rectangular tube which you might mistake for some sort of high-tech kaleidoscope, and which lacked most of the features which even the most basic of point-and-shoot cameras offer. The fact that the Illum is a far more camera-like camera may have been an acknowledgment that the first model was too radical a departure.
4. Light-field technology is still too limited. You can’t just press a button on a Lytro camera and expect to get good results: It takes trial and error to figure out. And even at their best, living pictures lack the crispness of conventional photos. A truly mainstream light-field camera would have to be both easier to use and capable of delivering better results.
5. Light-field ended up competing with post-processing. Many smartphones come with tools which simulate Lytro-like refocusing through after-the-fact image processing. Sometimes it works quite well; sometimes it’s crummy. Either way, it gives people with a casual interest in refocusing the ability to do it for free.
6. Lytro photography remained a world unto itself. That’s not Lytro’s fault: Its refocusable photos contained vast amounts of data which existing photo software and services were never built to understand. The company did a good job of building apps and web services to help its customers share Lytro photos, but you still couldn’t post a living picture to Instagram or edit it in Photoshop.
7. Geniuses don’t always flourish in the business world. Lytro founder Ren Ng, who created the fundamental light-field technology as a Stanford graduate student, is a remarkably impressive guy. But he stepped down as CEO a few months after its first camera shipped, and announced late last year that he would leave full-time employment at the company altogether for academic work. The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that you want a passionate, brainiac founder to run a startup for as long as possible, but in Lytro’s case that didn’t pan out.
Despite the company’s pivot in direction, I haven’t written off light-field photography as a mass-market technology forever. It might be Lytro or somebody else that successfully consumerizes it; it might take years or decades. Whatever happens, it still seems unlikely to me that garden-variety snapshots will remain stubbornly one-dimensional until the end of time.