Light Field Cameras: Another Segway?

Remember how the Segway was going to revolutionize our lives and rock our worlds? I guess the little teeter-scooter has done that, if your life revolves around leisurely touristy tours of certain major city downtown areas. Anyway, we’re now on the brink of yet another life-changing technological breakthrough, the Lytro™ light field camera and while the initial hype does look impressive, I remain skeptical that this is not simply another Petite Lap Giraffe.

Lytro Light Field Camera

I don’t profess to understand the science behind the concept of a light field camera, but in practice, it appears that such a camera uses software to perform certain light-capturing functions that traditional camera hardware can do well but not perfectly or completely. The result can be photos in which the point of focus can be changed after the fact, or that can be converted from 2D to 3D on-the-fly. There is a certain amount of “that’s so cool!” evoked by clicking on various parts of the photos in Lytro’s Living Picture gallery, and watching those parts shift into focus while the rest of the photo blurs out of focus, but I’m not sure the same effect couldn’t be achieved with a clever bit of Javascript (and, indeed, it appears that the gallery is powered by jQuery with a Flash wrapper; never fear, it does work on iOS devices).

It does occur to me that this technology…this whole concept, in fact…presupposes that print is dead. Shifting points of focus, or changing perspective, or 2D/3D conversions aren’t too applicable to painted pieces of paper. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, or a wrong-headed approach; after all, what percentage of the photos you look at nowadays are delivered via screen instead of print? For me, it’s probably over 75%, although I’m don’t actually know how to go about estimating that.

Well, anyway. I’m all for technology that makes cameras smarter, faster, and more capable in low light conditions. I’m impressed by the promise of photos that offer enhanced post-camera processing flexibility. Can Lytro actually fulfill the hype by bringing to market a camera that achieves these goals? I don’t know; I clicked on the “Reserve a Camera” link and got my name in the hat to find out more as things progress…but I’m also on the waiting list for one of those awesome Petite Lap Giraffes, too.

Fast Company has some insights regarding Lytro, including an interesting comparison of the company’s prospects to those of Dyson, the vacuum cleaner company.

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