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Lytro – Misunderstood but with promise

March 8th, 2012 No comments

There’s been a lot of buzz about the Lytro light field camera and with buzz comes inevitable confusion and misunderstanding.

I’ve been watching this technology since I first heard about Lytro many months ago and while I can’t justify the expense of buying the hardware yet, I was and remain extremely intrigued. The problem is that there’s a lot of what I perceive as ‘missing the point’ in how much of the online photo community is reacting to it. One of my favorite photography blogs, Scott Bourne’s  Photofocus features a post there now that addresses a lot of the misunderstandings he and I both see on the web about Lytro.

There’s also something he and I seem to be differing on and he’s called me out on Twitter for having an “agenda”. In part this post is for Scott to better understand what I have been unable to say in 140 character chunks but it’s mostly about the bigger picture, so to speak, with Lytro.

Let’s start with what Lytro is. The best way to do that is to read this from Lytro  themselves to explain it. The link to the CEO’s dissertation is also worth reading, even skimming if you prefer not to get too deep into math and optics to understand better how it works.

There are a few key points the above will make clearer so please, have a read and come back.

Read up? Ok, good, thanks. Here we go. The key points I see as being misunderstood by the web photo community in general.

First, light field needs a lot more pixels than you will see in a final image. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not a ‘flaw’ it’s simply a fact of the technology. The issue is now, with this first product, the final output size of the images is not comparable to what you would get from a similarly priced camera. That’s fine. A similarly priced camera can’t be focused after the fact either. People wrongly compare the low resolution output images to comparably priced or even cell phone cameras and, I think profoundly miss the point. More on this below.

Two, it’s a first product offering and it’s offered as a consumer product. Again, not a problem. It means Lytro can evolve the product and may even manage to do so for customers who already own the hardware. One should never buy a product based on the promise of a future update but a reasonable hope there are such updates in the offing sure is nice and Scott is a reliable source in my experience.

But, even with new features, perhaps even improved image performance in the main area this release seems to fall short, low light, the hardware is inherently limited in this *first* consumer product. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. It’s cheep compared to a professional DLSR and one or more good lenses. It’s not intended to be, nor is it a good use of what makes it special to compare its value based on the pixel count of the output files or the spec sheet of a comparably priced camera. There’s something unique here. Something new but, again, more on that below.

What both of these things mean is that this will start, we hope , to get a lot more interesting as time goes by. Light field photography has enormous potential. It has limitations. It has artistic constraints. Constraints are good. They change creativity. Depth of field and how it’s used in composition with focus are limitations of traditional photography that have been the basis of spectacular art. The lack of predetermination of focus and depth of field at capture time adds a new creative dimension and more important, to me, is that the viewer of the image can be empowered to interact.

Lytro’s player provides interactive interface to let the viewer change focus, and, perhaps, in future, depth of field is a new limitation, a new opportunity for the photographer. How do you compose an image where you empower the user to change it as they view it? What do you have to do differently as an artist when you let the viewer engage, when the expectation, the requirement is that you create an image that you know will be used this way? It gets interesting and that’s good!

Years ago, I was interviewed about how I and my then colleagues used another form of photography that allowed the user to interact, to alter what they saw of a photograph. Some of those same ideas apply here and I think Light Field and Lytro will bring a new means of expression to the photographer. I think this is great. Every medium has limitations and often the more interactive the medium the more interesting and challenging it is to do something compelling by using those limitations.

In a Twitter conversation about the following concern, Scott Bourne thought I had an agenda in asking a question I still don’t know the answer to. He’s right. I do. It’s nothing nefarious though. It’s very simple.

I asked Scott if he knew if the Flash application that let viewers of the images interact with the selective functionality made possible with Lytro’s tech had to be hosted at Lytro’s site. By all indications, yes that appears to be the case and that concerns me, a lot. While the Lytro desktop application will let the photographer use selective focus and publish a static image from the source light field image captured by the camera, it seems one must host one’s images at Lytro to publish and share images that allow the viewer to interact. If this is true, this is a problem for two major reasons.

First, editorial. Lytro would take a business risk acting as the publisher of images that may be controversial. The artist should be able to decide how far to push the boundaries of ‘good taste’ (within the limits of the law) and if they want to publish work in the tradition of Andres Serrano rather than Ansel Adams they should be able to do so without concern that Lytro’s business needs preclude them being comfortable hosting the images. Lytro’s Terms Of Use:  indicate that Lytro, wisely, retains the right to decide if images they host are ones they are comfortable with.

Second, business. There’s more to read at that terms of use link above but the current state of affairs, and what I was asking Scott about, would indicate that photographers currently need to rely on Lytro to host images in the Lytro ‘light field picture player’ (A flash app). This has the obvious risk that, should Lytro change their business model, perhaps charge for hosting add advertising or, though Scott reassures me they have plenty of funding, fold or sell out, then the photographer’s images may not be available, or available the same way with the same interactivity in future.

There’s reason to hope right in those same terms of use. Lytro makes reference to approved players and my hope is they release an open source player for their images. They can do this without compromising their IP rights to the light field imaging technology and in doing so, they’d reassure photographers investing not the trivial cost of the camera but the priceless value of their artistic efforts invested in creating images they wanted users to be able to interact with.

This is hardly the last word on this topic and all I seek to do here is start a conversation. Hopefully get Scott and other talented photographers thinking about the interactivity and Lytro to think about opening up what’s needed for people to host their images themselves.

P.S. It should be obvious, I hope, that light field photography, the ability to change focus after the fact is also a possible boon to other non-artistic endeavors from security to manufacturing quality control and machine vision applications. Light field moving from research paper to reality could be huge and Lytro could be a very smart place to invest.

 

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