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Light-bulb moment: invention adds new depth to digital camera field

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Your first refocusable picture

Lytro director of photography, Eric Cheng demonstrates how to take a refocusable picture using one of the company's cameras.Vision courtesy Lytro

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You know you've come up with a pretty spectacular invention when the tech pundits are comparing you to Steve Jobs and Jobs himself invites you to give a private demo at his house.

Dr Ren Ng, 32, born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and now based in Silicon Valley, developed a revolutionary new kind of “light-field camera” for consumers while studying at Stanford University in California.

Lytro founder Dr Ren Ng with the camera he invented.

Lytro founder Dr Ren Ng with the camera he invented.

The Lytro, which attracted $US50 million ($48 million) in venture capital, allows photographers to change the focus and depth of field on their pictures after they have been taken (the company's tagline is “shoot now, focus later”).

It does this by capturing all of the light in the scene from all directions to create what Ng calls “living pictures”. Just like a YouTube video, they can be hosted in the cloud and embedded on websites and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Viewers can fiddle with the focus of your pictures by clicking on parts of the image.

Over 400,000 light field pictures (see samples) have been shared since the Lytro camera's release in the United States six months ago and on October 10 it comes to Australia. The $499 eight-gigabyte version can capture 350 images while the $599 16-gigabyte version can hold twice that.

The 8GB model ($499) comes in blue and graphite while the 16GB model ($599) is red.

The 8GB model ($499) comes in blue and graphite while the 16GB model ($599) is red.

In April, Ng told Businessweek that when he first unveiled the Lytro camera to breathless media last year, Jobs invited him to demo the camera at his Palo Alto home. “It was really inspiring, he was so clear-thinking,” Ng said.

The Forbes journalist Adam Lashinsky's book Inside Apple provides more detail of the June 2011 meeting with Jobs. It says the pair discussed camera and product design and Ng told Jobs he'd send an email with ideas about how Lytro might be incorporated into Apple products.

What the 227-gram Lytro device – which has just two buttons and a touch screen – can do now used to require a room full of lenses and supercomputers, Lytro's vice-president of marketing, Kira Wampler, told Fairfax. Ng figured out how to miniaturise all that technology into the body of a camera.

Photos taken with the Lytro can be refocused by tapping the touchscreen on the device or clicking on the image on a computer.

Photos taken with the Lytro can be refocused by tapping the touchscreen on the device or clicking on the image on a computer.

“It's not lipstick for a giant woman,” joked Wampler, who says dentists have used Lytro to take photographs of patients' mouths. Most users shoot with the device using one hand. The camera, which has an 8x optical zoom lens and a constant f/2 aperture, switches on instantly and there is no discernible shutter delay or need to wait for focus.

Ng was unavailable for interview because he is on his honeymoon – a year overdue, said Wampler. He stood down as the chief executive of Lytro in June to focus on product vision and strategy in his new role as executive chairman.

After a decade in Australia, where he lived in Sydney and Melbourne, Ng went to Stanford and earned degrees in mathematical and computational science as well as a PhD in computer science.

His PhD thesis on light field technology earned the Association for Computing Machinery's Doctoral Dissertation Award for best computer science and engineering thesis in 2006. Ng was also awarded Stanford's Arthur Samuel Award for best PhD dissertation.

Ng always dreamed of becoming a college professor but decided to start Lytro in 2006 after realising his research could be taken out of the realms of academia and into affordable mainstream consumer products.

His brainwave came when he was trying to take a properly focused picture of a family friend's five-year-old daughter.

“With light field technology there is a huge opportunity for creativity in photography that hasn't been available in the past,” Ng said in a statement. “We have seen amazing, creative and interactive pictures from camera owners and I'm looking forward to the Lytro camera being available in Australia.”

The Australian distributor of the Lytro cameras is Blonde Robot and the stores stocking them include Bentleys Camera House (Queensland), Camera Electronic (Perth, WA), Croydon Camera House (Victoria), Diamonds (Adelaide, SA), Digital Camera Warehouse (Queensland, NSW, Victoria), Michaels (Melbourne CBD), Myer (Qld, NSW, ACT, Tasmania, Victoria), The New Camera House (Lismore) and Paxtons (NSW).

Lytro cameras are also going on sale in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. When the device launched in the US six months ago, it was only available online through Lytro's site but now it will be stocked through US retailers like Amazon, Target and BestBuy.

Samples (click to change focus):

69 comments

  • I want one.

    Commenter
    Pixie
    Location
    Ryde
    Date and time
    September 26, 2012, 11:25AM
    • Me too!!!

      Commenter
      Frank
      Location
      Pennant Hills
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 12:33PM
    • There are much cheaper gimmicks available. A co-worker has one (from the US), and it's basically useless. Difficult to use due to the shape, needs good light, and the resulting images are about 1 megapixel. Depth of field is basically fixed, so although you can adjust the focal point after the fact, large parts of the photo are always out of focus.

      Really cool to play with. Not worth the asking price. Maybe version 2 or 3 will be...

      Commenter
      Frank
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 1:24PM
  • I dont pretend to understand how this works but I can see the technology being adopted by other camera manufacturers. Absolutely brilliant.

    Commenter
    Homer Ridgemoore
    Date and time
    September 26, 2012, 11:28AM
    • WOW!

      I just had a WOW moment...it's been ages since I last had a genuine wow moment.

      This customised focusing ability is one of the holy grails of photography...clicking on those sample pictures and choosing which depth of field is in focus is really impressive.

      Well done Mr Ng. Little wonder Mr Jobs was so improssed.

      One day soon this technology will be integrated into all digital cameras, be they stand alone or in smart phones. Beautiful.

      Commenter
      Bill
      Location
      North Sydney
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 11:33AM
      • I totally agree about "wow". I said the same thing myself when I saw the image refocus.

        But, there's always a but, you need the long box precisely in order to be able to capture a field rather than a plane. All cameras including phones capture a flat plane of information. Optics says that will be a single focal plane (with some depth of field ... depending on the lens).

        In order to have multiple focal planes, you have to capture a field rather than a plane (i.e. a box not a flat surface). Hence your mobile phone would require that "volume" dimension in the optics. Sure, if it was small enough, perhaps you can replicate the field vs plane effect (in the same way that shrinking the optics in phones means you don't need a long lens) ... but I dunno.

        Put it another way, there's a reason why this camera is shaped the way it is. It's capturing a field.

        But ... anyway ... it's bloomin' marvellous. As a photograph, I never thought I'd see an image which could be refocused. Mind blowing!

        Commenter
        bb_one
        Date and time
        September 26, 2012, 12:47PM
      • bb_one there is a very simple answer to your "but" camera manufacturers have been using prisms and mirrors to bend light in cameras for almost as long as cameras have been around.
        So the solution is to to use a mirror behind the lens to bend the light 90d you can then have the light run the length of the mobile phone thereby creating your "long box"

        Commenter
        Oldskool
        Date and time
        September 26, 2012, 1:10PM
    • 2010 Called and they want their news back.....

      Commenter
      SinoPeach
      Date and time
      September 26, 2012, 11:33AM
      • SinoPeach: It goes on sale in a couple of weeks. The distributor wants to create some buzz, and people would like to know where they will retail. You know...marketing?

        And 2010 calling for it's news back sounds really recent and fresh, said no-one, ever. If you're going down that path, do try to keep up.

        Commenter
        Richard
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        September 26, 2012, 11:58AM
      • +1

        Just because it's being released in Australia, Fairfax Media need to do a story on it.

        How about having a finger on the technology pulse Fairfax? :)

        Commenter
        +1
        Date and time
        September 26, 2012, 11:59AM

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