Lytro CEO: Here's How We're Going To Make Your Smartphone's Camera 100x Better




Re-focusing an image taken with the Lytro Illum

Photography has changed a lot since its inception, but the concept is generally the same. We still view photos in a two-dimensional space, and factors such as lighting and focus still dictate the quality of an image. Cameras of the future, however, may allow you to interact with photos and manipulate these elements after you've taken the photo.


jason rosenthal new lytro ceo lytro


Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal

Lytro's Light Field Camera and newer high-end Illum camera, for example, allow you to re-focus images after you've taken them. 3-D photography and the ability to edit and adjust photos after the fact isn't exactly new, but Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal tells us that this is just the beginning.

But with smartphone cameras advancing, is there still room for high-end niche cameras like Lytro's? Rosenthal tells us about how Lytro envisions a future where light field photography resides in every camera, not just it's own - potenitally leading to more advanced smartphone cameras and virtual reality that's even more accurate and interactive.

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BUSINESS INSIDER: Smartphone cameras are getting better and better. What will Lytro and light field photography in general bring to everyday consumers?

JASON ROSENTHAL: It's really a fundamental new technology in photography for sure, and in imaging overall. It'll really change the capabilities of how cameras themselves work, and I mean cameras in the broadest sense. So not just high end products like the Lytro Illum that we just launched, but as well as the way the cameras work in smartphones and tablets and just about every other device that has a lens.


In light field photography, we capture all the 3-D geometric information about how every ray of light flows through a scene, versus in conventional photography you're able to just capture the brightness and the color of a photon.

The reason that's important is because there's really three things that come out of that that will broadly impact imaging. The first is that we can build this amazing hardware that has capabilities that you just can't get conventionally. So in the case of larger cameras like the Lytro Illume, it'll over time offer higher resolution than you can get conventionally with perfect focus at every point.



It's 3-D in every shot; it's lenses that have zoom ranges and light collection capabilities that you can just not build conventionally. So it's a real fundamental change in the performance of how cameras and imaging work.

The things you used to have to get right when you captured the picture you can now be addressed after the fact. Focus is just the very first one of those.

And the third is we're on this long-term journey where we think we can simultaneously increase the performance of cameras by a factor of 10 while simultaneously reducing the cost to build them by a factor of 10. So we're looking at almost 100x improvement in the way that cameras work.

So we're looking at almost 100x improvement in the way that cameras work.

We're taking physical components of the camera like lenses and optics and turning that into software and computation.

So back to your opening question - what does it mean for smartphones and if there's these new refocusing apps, what does that mean for us? The first thing I'd say is that we're flattered by the fact that some of the largest and most successful consumer electronic companies like Samsung, Nokia, and HTC have taken a concept and really done their own version of the feature.



Lytro Illum

Not that we want to take a lot of credit for that, but I think that that's a good indication that when we do something innovative or different in imaging it gets a lot of attention and people want to do it.

Going forward we'll be able to do things like make smartphones thinner, lighter, and cheaper by reducing the size of the camera module in smartphones, while driving up resolution of the picture. We'll be able to make shots on smartphones work in 3-D, and we'll over time have that capability for video. So I guess that's a long- winded way of saying there's just a ton more that light field technology can do in cameras of every form factor than simply refocusing.

BI: You mentioned that the camera is going to get 100x better because of a lot of the hardware computational components are going to be moved onto the software side. What does that mean for the user? Not even just the person taking the picture, but if photography improves that much in the near future I'm sure it's going to really impact the way we see images everywhere.


JR:I think that if you look at how photography on the web and in mobile works today in terms of the actual picture experience itself, it's really no different than if we took our parent's photo snapbooks, ripped a 4x6 print out of them and then posted them online. The way we experience pictures on the web, we're still kind of stuck almost in an early 1990s experience

We're still kind of stuck almost in an early 1990s experience.

in terms of what the pictures actually are. So I think that's the first thing that will change. The ability to shift perspective, the ability for the consumer to refocus a picture, that's a very early start.

Imagine if we could get to the point where everybody who has a smartphone or everybody who has a camera like a future version of theIllum has the same storytelling capabilities at their fingertips as someone like James Cameron in their production studios with thousands of artists and thousands of people. That's really the long-term promise - to make photography and storytelling more immersive, more interesting, and better and that's the journey that we're on.

BI: I remember the last time we spoke you also mentioned that the technology could bring the visual effects you'd see in video games to everyday photography. Can you elaborate on that, and explain how long it would take to get that technology into the mainstream?

JR: This is something that we're working really hard on every day. The Lytro Illum is a big step forward towards being able to do this kind of thing; it's built on Android and a Qualcomm chip which is really the same core ingredients that power the new Galaxy S5 and the HTC One. So a big reason why we did that is we wanted to be on the most broadly deployed consumer platform, and we wanted to bring a bunch of high end photography capabilities to Android. So that was a very conscious choice.


In terms of timing, it's a little hard to say but I would say over the next 2- 3 years for sure. You'll see not only Lytro Illum capabilities but also light field video and a whole bunch more stuff in many different devices.

BI: Have you been thinking about the iPhone too?

JR: There's nothing in what we're doing that wouldn't work well on iOS as well, it's just the fact that Android happens to be open source so we can actually build our own products. iOS is completely controlled by Apple, but if Apple decided they wanted to do this and work with us, this would work really well on iOS. It's the same thing with Windows Phone and other smartphones.

BI: So a lot of the functionality you're describing reminds me of virtual reality. It sounds like light field photography is capable of bringing the elements of virtual reality into standard photographs to bring them to life. Would you agree with that, and if so can you elaborate?

JR: With virtual reality today, it really only works in an entirely computer generated world.




Lytro's Light Field camera

Everything virtual-reality-related today can really only be done in a computer generated world. With Lyto Illum, you can dramatically expand what you can do and you can take real world images and put them into a virtual reality environment. Since we're inherently capturing all this rich data, you can put it directly to a virtual reality experience.

It really opens up the capabilities that people can take advantage of when they're creating virtual reality experiences. For example, if you wanted to create a video game inside the Business Insider offices, you could use the Lytro Illum to take a picture and insert into that environment. You could insert a digital version of Henry Blodget into the scene. All the distances would calculate automatically to create the world.

BI: Have you guys been talking about virtual reality at all, and are you interested in working with any VR companies like Oculus VR?

JR: We definitely think it's going to be very interesting directions that we'll go, and you'll definitely see us do something in it. We have nothing to announce now in terms of where we are.

BI: So you guys just made this announcement that your WebGL player will now be open-source, and 500px is your first partner. This basically means we'll see more living, interactive photos on different websites, right?


One of the challenges when you're bringing a new disruptive technology to photography is that if you're the only one doing it, it makes it hard for it to expand. So we wanted to make it easy and straightforward for anybody. With Facebook and Instagram and others, we want to make it easy for anybody who wants to incorporate it.