New camera technology to ‘redefine photography’

June 29, 2011: A new company and imaging technology burst on the scene last week with a plethora of stories in technical and IT publications echoing the claim of US developer Lytro that its ‘light field’ camera will redefine photography.

BELOW: Focus points using Ltyro technology can be chosen after the image is captured.

The ‘light field’ is an imaging science concept which ‘fully defines how a scene appears, from the foreground to the background and everything in between’. Lytro says its cameras record the full light field of a scene.

It also says it will have its first consumer cameras on the market (for sale online) this year, and is taking order from its website.

Light field cameras capture all of the light rays travelling in every direction through a scene via a light field sensor, which captures the colour, intensity and vector direction of light rays. In basic terms, this is achieved by adding an array of microlenses between the image and a sensor to boost the amount of information captured. Given this massive amount of image data, some aspects of a picture can then be manipulated after the fact.

The result is images with which, in soft display, you can in effect ‘pull focus’ to any area in the field of view. When you click on a point on any picture, this becomes the poijnt of focus. Ltyro calls this ‘living pictures’ You can change the point of focus at will after taking the picture. Click here for examples of the Lytro effect.

Because the camera captures the entire light field, there is no need to focus ahead of time. You can simply capture the picture and adjust the focus later.

Lytro says this also adds the benefit of speed, as there is no focussing lag before the shot is taken. The company also claims dramatically superior low-light performance for its technology. Other benefits are the ability to switch from 2D to 3D at will, or shift the perspective of the scene.

But there is a specific limitation to the Lytro system – relatively low-res images. The technology seems best suited to soft display and so doesn’t threaten the current crop of multi-megapixel compacts or DSLRs, but could be a real boost for camphone technology, according to imaging technology pundit Thom Hogan:

‘… Light Field is much more interesting at the cell phone camera size. It’s not difficult to imagine an 8-megapixel cell phone sensor with Lytro’s array producing very high quality, no-focus-necessary images for Web use (Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Flickr, email, etc., which is where most camera phone photos are going).’

As images are relatively easily embedded on websites, it will also be attractive for web designers and publishers.

Light field science and computational photography was the subject of Lytro CEO Dr Ren Ng’s PhD dissertation in computer science at Stanford. In more than six years of research, Dr Ren Ng miniaturised light field technology, ‘taking a roomful of cameras and computers in a lab environment ‘and shrinking it into an affordable, portable, easy-to-use camera.’


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