The news in the photosphere this morning is a New York Times article that has hit our little world like a bombshell. It's been five years or so since I last had occasion to mention the plenoptic camera of Ren Ng (right) in these precincts, and he and his associates have been plenty busy in the meantime, raising $50 million in venture capital and readying a commercial product! That was fast. The brand name is to be Lytro, and with five years' worth of Moore's Law since it was invented, it's getting more and more feasible all the time.
You know how you don't have to set white balance on the camera when you use RAW? You do it later, of course, in your photo editing program. Well, the Lytro does the same thing for focus and depth of field—shoot first, and select your desired plane of focus and desired depth of field later, at your leisure, on your computer. Here's the intro page to the original Stanford University paper (the .avi video at this link takes a while to load, I presume because of heavy demand, but it's pretty cool). Here's a brief Lytro promo video, and here's Lytro's website. (I'd recommend reading the Times article (first link) first.)
Back in 2006 I scribbled, "I'm no Nostradamus, but it's probably likely that this fascinating development will figure in the photography of the future." They're certainly getting closer. It could well be that discussions of "autofocus" and "manual focus" (and focus lag and everything else related to mechanical before-the-shot focus) are soon to be as quaint and old-fashioned as kerosene lamps. And without the need to allow us to find and set focus as we shoot, camera design will be greatly freed from one of its principle constraints, so camera designs would be likely to change radically, too.
Things like this can go either way, of course—there are plenty of examples in history of great ideas getting buried in the backwaters of proprietary protection, public uninterest, or predatory suppression by more powerful competitors, and withering away there. I have a feeling this isn't going to be one of them, but who knows? It's certainly going to be interesting to watch the progress of Lytro's "Light Field Photography" from here on in.
(Thanks to Oren and many others)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "I've no doubt that this technology will find its way into every little camera by 2020. It will be right there with the various 'detection' features (i.e., face, smile, blink, ugly), many of which were also probably brought to photography by computer science doctoral candidates.
"This past weekend I read an extensive article on just how far drone technology has been developed for war and surveillance. Surely it won't be long before we can just type GPS coordinates into a camera, open a window, and send our solar-powered cameras off to take pictures for us while we watch TV. The most popular snapshot sites will never be the same. Tourism will be down at places like Paris and the Grand Canyon. Instead, it will look like they are constantly plagued by swarms of flying drone cams. The whole idea of 'street photography' will also be revolutionized.
"Of course the cams will upload everything directly to Flickr and Facebook unedited. (Not much change there.)"
Mike replies: Ken, like me sometimes these days, you are sounding a touch cranky.... ;-)
Featured Comment by Marc Rochkind: "I am trying to catch up as quickly as I can. Today, for my camera history work, I spent the entire morning researching the motivations behind Kodak's replacing Instamatic (126) with Pocket Instamatic (110). Tomorrow I plan to start on Disc, and then by Sat. I should be ready for Dr. Ng."
Mike replies: Cranky...cranky....
Featured Comment by SRay: "Remember when the Segway was supposed to revolutionize the way people get around? Well, I've never seen an actual Segway, but I sure do see a lot of bikes. Lytro...another Segway? Or a step in a whole new direction for photography? One thing is for sure, imagemaking is evolving. If Lytro becomes a movement, so to speak, it'll be interesting to see what Canon and Nikon will do next. Meanwhile, play with the Lytro. Looks like it might be fun."