Back in June, Silicon Valley startup Lytro announced it was working on a consumer light-field camera, using a technology that captures 3D light. Among the amazing-sounding benefits: It lets you focus blurry pictures or change the depth of focus after you’ve shot them.
At the time, the company showed off photos and talked technology, but didn’t release any real details about the camera itself. Now it has, at a San Francisco press event led by Lytro founder Ren Ng. That’s him showing off his brainchild in the photo I took above.
As you can see, the Lytro camera looks more like a postmodern flashlight or a high-end kaleidoscope than a garden-variety point-and-shoot. It’s a skinny rectangle with almost no controls–just a square touchscreen for composing and viewing pictures, a shutter button, and a strip that lets you zoom.
The specs don’t sound like normal camera specs, either. It has an F/2 lens which lets in so much light that the camera doesn’t have a flash; Ng says it takes great photos in low light. There’s an 8X zoom. The memory and battery are built-in, not removable.
Oh, and how many megapixels? I asked several Lytro representatives, all of whom told me they didn’t know. I’m sure the company doesn’t want anyone mundanely comparing the camera to a Canon or Olympus model, but if they really don’t know the megapixel rating offhand, that’s noteworthy in itself. (They did keep telling that it captures 12-megaray images.)
Lytro’s camera will come with Web-based and Mac software that lets you edit the photos, including focusing and refocusing them, as well as share them in a form that lets the folks who view them play around with focus even further. Photos are stored in a new format that no current editing application supports, but you can convert them to JPG; if you do, you’ll lose the ability to refocus.
As for price, the camera will come in a $399 model with 8GB (good for 350 photos) and a $499 16GB one (750) photos. That’s not an impulse purchase, but it does put it within reach of a fairly large number of interested people. The company is taking preorders starting today, but will miss the holiday season: The camera is supposed to ship in early 2012.
I’m still sorting out what I think about Lytro and won’t really know until I can take some photos myself. The technology is remarkable and should turn some photos that would have been lousy into keepers, but it’s not clear to me whether the very best pictures it’s capable of capturing rival or exceed the ones you can take with a more boring $399 camera if you know what you’re doing.
Other than the technology itself, what’s most striking to me about Lytro is how little it resembles other cameras: Its goals are just utterly different from anything else on the market. That, and the emphasis on science, simplicity, and striking industrial design do remind me of one camera I’ve thought a lot about recently: Polaroid’s SX-70. (There’s Polaroid founder Edwin Land brandishing his invention at a Polaroid launch event.) It’ll be fascinating to see whether Lytro, like SX-70, is an astonishing product that doesn’t change everything forever–or whether we’re about to witness the dawn of a new era for photography.