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Meet the Stealthy Start-Up That Aims to Sharpen Focus of Entire Camera Industry / Richard Koci Hernandez

A Mountain View start-up is promising that its camera, due later this year, will bring the biggest change to photography since the transition from film to digital.

Ordinarily, I’m turned off by such hyperbole, but after having seen a demo from Lytro, that statement seems downright reasonable.

The breakthrough is a different type of sensor that captures what are known as light fields — basically, all the light that is moving in all directions in the view of the camera. That offers several advantages over traditional photography, the most revolutionary of which is that photos no longer need to be focused before they are taken.

This means capturing that perfect shot of your fast-moving pet or squirming child could soon get a whole lot easier. Instead of having to manually focus or wait for autofocus to kick in and hopefully center on the right thing, pictures can be taken immediately and in rapid succession. Once the picture is on a computer or phone, the focus can be adjusted to center on any object in the image, also allowing for cool artsy shots where one shifts between a blurry foreground and sharp background and vice versa.

“A really well-composed light-field picture can tell a story in a new way,” says Ren Ng, the company’s founder and chief executive (pictured above with an early prototype light-field camera).

Lytro’s camera works by positioning an array of tiny lenses between the main lens and the image sensor, with the microlenses measuring both the total amount of light coming in as well as its direction.

The technology also allows photos to be taken in very low-light conditions without a flash, as well as for some eye-popping three-dimensional images to be taken with just a single lens. To view photos in full 3-D, users still need some sort of 3-D display, such as a 3-D phone, PC or television. However, even without such a display, a certain amount of 3-D is visible.

Once images are captured, they can be posted to Facebook and shared via any modern Web browser, including mobile devices such as the iPhone.

To get a glimpse of this, check out the photo above, as seen from two focal points, or try changing the focus yourself on the image embedded below. Once the photo has loaded, try clicking on different parts of the image to change the focus. (For those who really like this, I’ve included a few more images at the bottom of the story.) There is also a video interview with Ng, where he explains the technology and shows it in action. / Jason Bradley

The interesting choice that Lytro has made is to go into the camera business itself, rather than license out its technology to established camera makers. It hopes to have a point-and-shoot model on sale later this year. The device will be “reasonably priced,” but Lytro didn’t offer further details.

“It will be a competitively priced consumer product that fits in your pocket,” Ng said.

Of course, going into the camera business means that Lytro has a lot of work ahead of itself. The company currently has about 45 employees, mostly in Mountain View, though it also has a few at a newly opened office in Hong Kong. To fund the effort, Lytro has raised roughly $50 million in funding over the past couple of years, most recently in a Series C round led by Andreessen Horowitz. Early investors include Intuit’s Scott Cook, VMware’s Diane Greene and venture capitalist Charles Chi, who is now working at Lytro.

“Lytro’s breakthrough technology will make conventional digital cameras obsolete,” Andreessen Horowitz general partner Marc Andreessen said in a statement. “It has to be seen to be believed.”

Ng didn’t go quite that far in our interview, but he did say he hopes that Lytro will reinvigorate — and eventually transform — the entire camera industry. Digital cameras are still big business, to be sure, but many people are finding they are carrying their camera — especially those of the point-and-shoot variety — a whole lot less.

In large part, that’s due to the rise of the smartphone. But Ng hopes Lytro will change all of that.

Lytro isn’t the only company pursuing camera technologies that go beyond the traditional snapshot. There are, of course, lots of 3-D cameras coming to market on cellphones, notably the soon-to-ship Evo 3D from HTC and Sprint. Meanwhile, Adobe has also explored the implications of light-field technology and its former CEO, Bruce Chizen, is on Lytro’s technical advisory board.

Light-field technology was developed back in the 1990s, and initially required 100 cameras attached to a supercomputer. During his graduate studies at Stanford in the mid-2000s, Ng looked at how the technology could be both miniaturized and commercialized. After graduating, he founded the company now known as Lytro, which got seed funding back in 2007, and has been quietly working to get the technology mature enough for the consumer market.

The key will be how quickly — and at what price — Lytro can bring its technology to market. The company isn’t offering a lot of details beyond confirming it plans to bring out its first camera later this year. That device, Ng said, will only take still images, though there is the potential to use light-field technology for videos, as well as for scientific and medical imagery, down the road. / Eric Cheng / Richard Koci Hernandez / Richard Koci Hernandez / Eric Cheng

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