If you had to give an award for the year’s most breakthrough piece of consumer tech, there’s a good chance it would go to Lytro, a camera company which recently unveiled its first product. Unlike other cameras, you never need to focus it. Rather, the images it takes are interactive–you can change their focus later, meaning that you can take pictures of a fleeting moment without having to check whether the right thing was in the picture. And because the camera never needs focusing or adjustments, it never has any shutter lag. It is truly just a point and shoot.
Many tech-savvy people have gone gaga over that promise. But few people have noticed that design is, in its own way, just as weird. Instead of cradling the camera up to eye level, you hold the Lytro almost like a spyglass or a little telescope. “That’s a fundamental gesture that speaks to how we see things,” says Gadi Amit, the founder of New Deal Design, which worked on the camera hand in hand with the Lytro team, led by CEO Ren Ng. Amit points out that kids, playing around, hold their forefinger and thumb together in a similar posture–like they’re creating a peephole on the world, for seeing things with special focus.
This is perhaps Lytro’s defining feature, and the design tells two stories: One, about the underlying technology. And another about the act of taking a photograph. “We wanted to make it as simple as possible, while creating a form that truly represented a leap in photography,” says Ng, whose award-winning PhD thesis at Stanford formed the basis for Lytro’s tech. In tapping New Deal Design, he got a Silicon Valley firm accustomed to designing for disruptive technologies, such as the FitBit, the Slingbox, and the Better Place charging station.
From the outset, the project was faced with some extreme constraints. Understanding them requires a bit of background on the tech that Ng developed. The Lytro doesn’t have a typical camera sensor. Instead of capturing all the light rays that enter the camera and blending them together to form an image, the Lytro uses sophisticated algorithms to track exactly which direction each light ray is coming from. Thus, every image that the Lytro takes is a record of how the light was bouncing around an entire space during a split second. You can change your point of focus simply because Lytro images allow you to highlight one batch of light rays or another–thus bringing one or another part of the image into focus.
The only catch, of course, is that the Lytro’s sensors require a ton of light to work well–and thus, the Lytro camera requires a huge lens. More precisely, a f/2 lens over the entire range of an 8x optical zoom. That simply means that the lens captures a ton of light whether an object is near or far, just like a telephoto lens. But also like a telephoto rig, the Lytro lens has to be very long as a result. How do you cram a super-long lens onto a camera that’s still small enough to pocket? You don’t. “There’s over 300 different digital cameras on the market every year,” explains Ng. “Frankly, there’s a lot of anachronistic forms that carry over from when a camera body needed to house a roll of film.” That body/lens look, where you have the lens perpendicular to the camera body, makes big lenses awkward: They simply hang off the front, dragging everything down. “The big problem was how to combine this giant lens with an interactive UI screen,” says Amit.
His team tried out a multitude of solutions, including one that looked like a conventional point-and-shoot with a huge zoom lens, and myriad folding mechanisms that would integrate the camera’s display screen and lens. But they realized that each of those solutions was really a cheat, inherited from the outdated tech of the analog camera. And that, in turn, pushed them to the most obvious solution of all: What amounts to basically a metal tube surrounding the lens, with the aperture on one end and the display screen on the other.
This worked, from a technical standpoint, by allowing a fairly straightforward arrangement of all the camera’s guts; other, more complicated forms would necessitate more complicated internal architecture, and greater bulk as a result. But the form factor’s stark simplicity was at first controversial with the company’s board. Things began to change as they realized how the form was a direct expression of the technology inside, with the added benefit of a gestural change in the way a person takes a photograph. “There’s a moment that happens during the best projects, when 10 people in a room realize that there’s something so pure about a solution that it works,” says Amit.
For his team, the real technical difficulty began once the tube-like form was settled on. New Deal realized that it had to conform to very specific dimensions if it was to feel good in the hand–neither too small or too large. “It was millimeter madness,” says Amit. “We realized that any cross section larger than 45 millimeters on a side was a dead dog. Having the square be 60 millimeters on a side was absurd. 40 millimeters was just right.” And so his team had to rework and rework the internal architecture to allow all the electronics to fit and all the wires to connect just right. New Deal also figured out a way to make the case seamless and tight at low cost: The core is simply an extruded piece of aluminum, which allows it to be monolithic.
“Gadi and I shared a deep-seated ethos around simplicity and making something that could stand out in a crowded market,” says Ng. Even though they are introducing a risky, $400 product into one of the most crowded consumer markets on the planet, they had at least one profound advantage: They were starting from scratch. “For most companies, each time you want to add another feature you’re worried about maintaining the specs from last year, so the camera just keeps ballooning,” explains Ng. “Instead, we focused on the basic principles we wanted: Something responsive, uncluttered. So all we have is a shutter button and a power button, and a touch-slider to control the lens.”