Lytro's Illum camera spells an end to blurred images with light field photography

Light-field photography has big potential but has yet to convince consumers; can Lytro's futuristic looking Illum finally convince people?
  • @jjvincent

Lytro, the company that first introduced the concept of refocusing photos after they’ve been being taken, has launched a new camera that they say represents the “future of photography”.

Like the original Lytro, the new Illum uses light field technology to capture what an image looks like on multiple focal planes at once. Although this was a staggeringly good trick when the camera first launched, the effect has since been approximated by regular camera phones using software alone.

However, Lytro are hoping that their new Illum will convince the public that their “living pictures” are the real McCoy, offering even more versatile images as well as a suite of software that allows users to better explore the dynamic pictures (see below for an example - just click to refocus).

While the first Lytro looked like a rubberised kaleidoscope, the new Illum appears more akin to a top-of-the-range DSLR – even if the angular lines and rubberized stylings do also give the impression of a futuristic weapon.

The new camear costs $1,600 (£890 - four times that of the original model) although pre-orders will get a $100 discount before the model start shipping in July, and in addition to the sizable lens it also comes with a 4-inch touchscreen (an improvement on the matchbook-sized display of the first) as well as Wi-Fi and GPS for sharing photos and tracking where they were taken.

There’s no doubt that Lytro’s technical team has achieved impressive things, taking technology that used to require tens of individual cameras and a sizeable computers and squeezing it into a product that you can hold in your hand, but it's not certain whether they'll find mainstream success.

While the original Lytro was impressive, it was difficult to get ordinary users to see the benefits: Facebook doesn’t support refocusable images, nor Instagram or Twitter, so who will see them?

By pricing the new Illum way above ordinary point-and-shoot cameras, Lytro is pitching their technology above the heads of the mainstream, but this might allow their dynamic images to percolate into the mainstream through more professionally-minded photographers.

In an interview with The Verge, Lytro founder and executive chairman Ren Ng says that it was actually the uses beyond the consumer market that first attracted him to light field technology and that his ultimate aim is get rid of the hardware and package refocusable images into “single-lens, single sensor” set-ups.

If Lytro achieve this then it could enable everything from refocusable MRI scans to security cameras that fulfil the CSI fiction of shouting “enhance!” at a computer screen and seeing a blurred license plate come into crystal-sharp focus.

If this was combined with the increasing momentum behind virtual reality technology like the Oculus Rift then photography could be entering a new dimension - even if the price-tag is still beyond most of us.