NEW YORK — Precious few tech products are groundbreaking, no matter what the folks paid to hype them claim. But the Lytro digital camera that I reviewed when it started shipping earlier this year is indeed that rare breed, technology that epitomizes radical innovation.
Lytro is the shoot first/focus later digital camera based on”light field technology” research, the subject at which Lytro founder Ren Ng did his seminal Ph.D work at Stanford University. At the risk of overhyping things myself, the technology has the potential to reinvent photography itself.
That doesn’t quite happen yet, but using these odd-shaped cameras — they remind me of oversized containers of lipstick — enable you to capture so-called “living pictures,” images that let you choose which part is in focus, and which part blurry, even after the picture was taken. Though the first version of the camera has numerous drawbacks — tricky to learn, no flash, no video, no expandable storage — you can’t help but marvel at the technological hocus-pocus in play.
On Thursday, Lytro announced a free software update coming December 4 that expands the magic. You will now be able to interactively change the point of view in living pictures, again long after capturing them. This is true even of pictures you may have shot in the early days of the Lytro camera.
What this means is you can keep more of a picture in focus, along the way changing the way you think about what’s in the scene. Each digital file representing a living picture does have to be reprocessed through software, which can be slow.
But once you’ve done that, changing the perspective is as simple as dragging your mouse in any direction on top of the image, or, doing the same thing with your finger on an iPad. Even better, the people you share the images with at lytro.com, on Facebook or Twitter, or on their own mobile devices can also experience this Perspective Shift feature as it’s called, without needing any special software.
Ng demonstrated the new feature to me ahead of today’s announcement. Changing the perspective in some images provides an effect that feels a bit like video, which is on the Lytro roadmaps.
The software upgrade also brings another new feature, nine Living Filters that let you dress up pictures in various ways. Through the Crayon filter, for example, you can add a touch of color to an otherwise monochrome picture. A Mosaic filter creates a tiled mosaic to the out-of-focus parts of a scene. Still another filter, dubbed 8-Track, adds a 1970-ish vignette-style to a picture, while Line Art transforms your picture into a grayscale outline.
To make all this happen, Lytro captures light in every direction and point in space, capturing a lot more data than a conventional digital camera takes in. Such a process once required a roomful of cameras tethered to a supercomputer. Now it is all made possible in a camera you can stash in your coat pocket.
Lytro still has limitations. It may be able to change the focus, but it is no miracle worker when it comes to motion blur caused by a shaky shooter. Moreover, there’s still a learning curve to using these 7.55-ounce cameras, which come in different colors and start at a pricey $399 for 8-gigabyte versions that can take about 350 pictures, or $499 for 16GB or about 750 pictures.
When Lytro first launched, a Mac was required, and Windows PCs were subsequently added. The company says there isn’t much of a wait for one now as there was when the camera was first made available. After only be sold initially at the company’s website, it is now available online from Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and Target.com as well.
Even so, Lytro isn’t yet a mainstream sell. It’s not exactly a substitute for the camera in your phone, much less a digital SLR. But then it’s not really meant to be. Instead, it’s a fun, artistic — and dare I say — revolutionary companion to the other picture takers you own. And as Lytro is now proving, it can be made better through software.