Lytro and the Magic Camera

Back of my mind I’m like damn, no way
translate español, no way Jose
—Kanye West, Big Brother


Because I spend a huge portion of my time looking at new technology companies, it’s getting more and more difficult for entrepreneurs to surprise me. Nonetheless, a young entrepreneur named Ren Ng recently walked into the firm and blew my brains to bits.

You see my mind has been softened by the past 185 years of data, which left it vulnerable to Ren’s fundamental technological breakthrough. Since 1826, when French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first permanent image photograph, photography has worked in essentially the same way. A plane of light is captured on some medium. Now that medium has changed quite a bit over the years from paper soaked in silver chloride to silver plated copper coated with silver iodide to more recently random access computer memory, but the medium always captures a plane of light. On the front-end features like autofocus, flash, and others have been added to better capture that plane of light, but it’s still been just that plane.

It’s always been that way until right now.

Ren invented a portable technology that captures not just a plane of light, but the entire light field. A light field is defined as every beam of light in every direction at every point in space. Light field research has been going on for some time, but Ren has figured out a way to fit the technology into your pocket.

So what does this mean?

People often refer to taking a picture as capturing the moment, but conventional photography does not really capture the moment. It captures one angle, one set of light, and one focus of the moment. If you are a professional photographer, you might capture the best parts of the moment. If you are someone like me, you most certainly will not. With Ren’s light field camera, you actually capture the moment or at least all of the light that visually represents the moment.

Once you have captured the moment, you can go back at any time and get the picture that you want. Specifically, after you take the picture, you can refocus, re light, and re-orient the shot.

Essentially, you can take the picture you wish you would have taken after the fact. If you are used to the old paradigm, it’s like travelling backwards through time. You can take a picture then figure out what you really wanted then go back through time and take that picture. And oh by the way, you can view the pictures in 3D. Way.

You may be thinking that this is all good and fine, but is there really a market for a magic camera? It turns out that the three biggest frustrations with conventional plane-of-light cameras are:

They are too slow—It turns out that auto focusing takes a fair amount of time. How many times have you tried to capture a moment only to have the moment disappear while you were waiting for your camera to focus?

The pictures aren’t bright enough—Somehow, you didn’t actually capture enough light on the plane to get the shot you wanted.

They are too complicated—Current cameras provide lots of buttons and knobs to overcome the one plane limitation, but the result is a super complicated device.

With Lytro’s light field camera, you take pictures instantly. No need to focus, because you can do that later. The camera uses all of the available light in the scene, so you can take photos in very low light environments even without flash. With no buttons for special focus, the Lytro camera is dead simple.

The magic underlying magic

From a technology perspective, developing the sensor that captured the light field—while requiring deep science—may have been easy part. Building software that generates a beautiful picture, or thousands of different beautiful pictures, from the light field may be the most difficult task. In fact, the software problem is so hard and so important that Lytro recruited Kurt Akeley, one of the great pioneers in computer graphics and co-founder of Silicon Graphics, to lead their software effort.

The co-founder of the most important 3D computer graphics company in history joining a camera company marks an important point of departure for the photography industry. As cameras become primarily software products in the same way that phones became primarily software products over the past several years, new industry leaders with world-class software capabilities will emerge in the same way that the phone industry has turned upside down over the past 5 years.  We are in for exciting and transformational times.

You can get a glimpse of the future right now at




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