In the beginning, there was Ren Ng’s graduate dissertation at Stanford engineering school. Titled “Digital Light Field Photography,” it explored a new kind of imaging that involved capturing all the light waves in a scene and using advanced computer science to gain a three-dimensional understanding of what was going on that went way, way beyond conventional photography.
Ng turned his research into a Silicon Valley startup, Lytro. In 2012, it released a $399 camera that looked like a pocket-sized kaleidoscope and let you take pictures that you could refocus after the fact. When it found that most of the people who liked that idea were serious artistic types and pros rather than mainstream consumers, it shifted its efforts to a $1,599 model aimed at “creative pioneers.”
And now–in a move that it began to hint at early this year–Lytro is moving past the consumer market altogether. It’s announcing Immerge, a high-end system for capturing, processing, editing, and distributing virtual-reality cinematography.
How high end? Lytro, which plans to make a prototype version of the system available in the first quarter of 2016, says it will sell for an unspecified figure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It will also be available for rent.) That will get you a 360-degree video camera, a streaming server, plug-ins for professional video applications such as Nuke, a player for headsets such as Oculus Rift, and more.
Existing VR cinematography systems use multiple cameras to shoot video from a variety of perspectives, then stitch the results together into a simulation of 3-D space. Immerge, Lytro says, will capture data about the world around it that will let it create more realistic virtual reality, with what it calls “six degrees of freedom”–the ability for a user to look left, right, backward, forward, up, and down.
For all that’s changing about Lytro’s direction, light-field technology remains at the core. “The tech is the same,” says Jason Rosenthal, who replaced founder Ng as CEO in 2013. “The customer base is very, very different.”
In the past, Rosenthal says, he had to begin any discussion of Lytro by explaining the benefits of light-field photography. For VR producers–the company is working with ones such as Vrse and Wevr–its virtues are so obvious that “before I’d get one sentence in, they’d stop me.”
I’ve always been excited about Lytro’s potential. But its failure to get where it originally set out to go has left me gun shy about formulating any premature conclusions about Immerge. Even if I wasn’t, the company’s initial announcement of the new system, which sounds wildly ambitious, is thin on details. When Rosenthal dropped in to tell me about it, he didn’t bring any of the hardware or examples of VR content created with the system. Then there’s the fact that the images that Lytro provided for this article all have “conceptual rendering” disclaimers.
If Immerge takes off, though, it could lead back to the mass-market vision that Lytro has struggled with so far. Capturing serious VR is a pricey and complicated process right now, but Rosenthal told me that the goal is to make it affordable and approachable. And he doesn’t think it will take all that long. “Within three years,” he says, “we’ll get to the point where you can build this in a consumer form factor and price point.”