How Lytro's Weird Design Tells A Story About Revolutionary Tech

The Lytro has tech nerds buzzing about its futuristic technology. But the design has just as important a role in selling such a radical leap for photography.

If you had to give an award for the year’s most breakthrough piece of consumer tech, there’s a good chance it would go to Lytro, a camera company which recently unveiled its first product. Unlike other cameras, you never need to focus it. Rather, the images it takes are interactive—you can change their focus later, meaning that you can take pictures of a fleeting moment without having to check whether the right thing was in the picture. And because the camera never needs focusing or adjustments, it never has any shutter lag. It is truly just a point and shoot.

[An actual Lytro image. Click on the left and right edges of the image—the focus changes accordingly.]

Many tech-savvy people have gone gaga over that promise. But few people have noticed that design is, in its own way, just as weird. Instead of cradling the camera up to eye level, you hold the Lytro almost like a spyglass or a little telescope. "That’s a fundamental gesture that speaks to how we see things," says Gadi Amit, the founder of New Deal Design, which worked on the camera hand in hand with the Lytro team, led by CEO Ren Ng. Amit points out that kids, playing around, hold their forefinger and thumb together in a similar posture—like they’re creating a peephole on the world, for seeing things with special focus.

This is perhaps Lytro’s defining feature, and the design tells two stories: One, about the underlying technology. And another about the act of taking a photograph. "We wanted to make it as simple as possible, while creating a form that truly represented a leap in photography," says Ng, whose award-winning PhD thesis at Stanford formed the basis for Lytro’s tech. In tapping New Deal Design, he got a Silicon Valley firm accustomed to designing for disruptive technologies, such as the FitBit, the Slingbox, and the Better Place charging station.

From the outset, the project was faced with some extreme constraints. Understanding them requires a bit of background on the tech that Ng developed. The Lytro doesn’t have a typical camera sensor. Instead of capturing all the light rays that enter the camera and blending them together to form an image, the Lytro uses sophisticated algorithms to track exactly which direction each light ray is coming from. Thus, every image that the Lytro takes is a record of how the light was bouncing around an entire space during a split second. You can change your point of focus simply because Lytro images allow you to highlight one batch of light rays or another—thus bringing one or another part of the image into focus.

The only catch, of course, is that the Lytro’s sensors require a ton of light to work well—and thus, the Lytro camera requires a huge lens. More precisely, a f/2 lens over the entire range of an 8x optical zoom. That simply means that the lens captures a ton of light whether an object is near or far, just like a telephoto lens. But also like a telephoto rig, the Lytro lens has to be very long as a result. How do you cram a super-long lens onto a camera that’s still small enough to pocket? You don’t. "There’s over 300 different digital cameras on the market every year," explains Ng. "Frankly, there’s a lot of anachronistic forms that carry over from when a camera body needed to house a roll of film." That body/lens look, where you have the lens perpendicular to the camera body, makes big lenses awkward: They simply hang off the front, dragging everything down. "The big problem was how to combine this giant lens with an interactive UI screen," says Amit.

[An example of a compact camera with a huge lens cantilevering from the body. Not very ergonomic.]
[In the Lytro, by contrast, the center of gravity and tube-like form are meant to fit in the hand despite a lens that takes up over 2/3 of its length]

His team tried out a multitude of solutions, including one that looked like a conventional point-and-shoot with a huge zoom lens, and myriad folding mechanisms that would integrate the camera’s display screen and lens. But they realized that each of those solutions was really a cheat, inherited from the outdated tech of the analog camera. And that, in turn, pushed them to the most obvious solution of all: What amounts to basically a metal tube surrounding the lens, with the aperture on one end and the display screen on the other.

This worked, from a technical standpoint, by allowing a fairly straightforward arrangement of all the camera’s guts; other, more complicated forms would necessitate more complicated internal architecture, and greater bulk as a result. But the form factor’s stark simplicity was at first controversial with the company’s board. Things began to change as they realized how the form was a direct expression of the technology inside, with the added benefit of a gestural change in the way a person takes a photograph. "There’s a moment that happens during the best projects, when 10 people in a room realize that there’s something so pure about a solution that it works," says Amit.
[Unlike almost all other camera designs, the Lytro’s form allows you to take pictures with one hand, which in turns plays up the immediacy of the camera’s responsiveness]
For his team, the real technical difficulty began once the tube-like form was settled on. New Deal realized that it had to conform to very specific dimensions if it was to feel good in the hand—neither too small or too large. "It was millimeter madness," says Amit. "We realized that any cross section larger than 45 millimeters on a side was a dead dog. Having the square be 60 millimeters on a side was absurd. 40 millimeters was just right." And so his team had to rework and rework the internal architecture to allow all the electronics to fit and all the wires to connect just right. New Deal also figured out a way to make the case seamless and tight at low cost: The core is simply an extruded piece of aluminum, which allows it to be monolithic.

"Gadi and I shared a deep-seated ethos around simplicity and making something that could stand out in a crowded market," says Ng. Even though they are introducing a risky, $400 product into one of the most crowded consumer markets on the planet, they had at least one profound advantage: They were starting from scratch. "For most companies, each time you want to add another feature you’re worried about maintaining the specs from last year, so the camera just keeps ballooning," explains Ng. "Instead, we focused on the basic principles we wanted: Something responsive, uncluttered. So all we have is a shutter button and a power button, and a touch-slider to control the lens."

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  • clarkbattle

    Of course, the elephant in the room is when are they going to film video with two cameras in 3D?  Given some sort of eye tracking would allow viewers to control the focal point in a 3D, effectively eliminating any visual queasiness people have viewing 3D video.

  • Skidmarks

    Regardlesss of how clever gadgets like Lytro are, with no optical viewfinder/rangefinder it is useless in sunlight as are all of the current crop of small digitals however good their sensors and lenses.

  • TJerome

    This reply is months later, so I actually have one of these devices. I will attest to the problem of looking at the viewfinder in bright sunlight--it's completely washed out. I suspect a Hoodman hood will be needed to restore full-sun functionality. I'm looking into it with them.

  • Not a fan...yet

    I see exciting new technology and ideas being implemented in yet another camera that will produce mediocre images almost by default. Apart from the technical issues (in low light conditions, camera shake, etc), the focus is what imparts the point of view and meaning of an image. Take that away and you are left with a cutesy unsophisticated-looking gadget producing images that will keep the average low-attention span social media user engaged for exactly 3 seconds... the first time around.
    Having said that, the technology behind the Lytro is nothing short of amazing. Like "Not a fan", I will wait for the next round of Light Field Capture devices that will, hopefully, put the technology to more innovative use.  

  • jmco

    Using the Sony NEX system as an example of a big lens on a small body is really off base. The whole idea of the NEX is to be able to reuse (in part) existing optics (the most expensive and personal part of pro level interchangeable camera lens systems). There are also some mathematical/optical issues/costs involving zoom lenses and the size and location of the sensor. If one wants a particular quality zoom with a particular ƒstop and a great optical sensor in a flat body, the Sony NEX is a good choice. If you want a smaller lens on a smaller body, Olympus and Pentax (and soon others) have smaller bodies but also much smaller sensors. The Sony made sensor is an APC size (very good now all around, also used in Nikon). 
    The Lytro is fantastic, for what it is and does and the potential. But if you have thousands of dollars invested in top of the line or even middle of the line lenses, and you can use a thin body with them, you will keep those lenses and use the thin body to save weight. If those lenses are Nikon or Canon, and you like using those lenses, you'll keep using a heavy DSLR body even if a Lytro approach is the way to go. (But there are also adaptors to put other lens brands, like Leica, Canon, etc., on the Sony NEX bodies too…)

  • High Potential

    Michael:  That would be boring :)

    Really, I am not sure if that is possible with Light Field Capture. But with traditional photography an aperture of f/2.0 would prevent that.  Good question though!

  • Michael Broschart

    Since you are able to capture all the light, would it be possible to have all of the image in-focus?

  • SBMobile

    The "focus" later feature is an automatic sale, even though they're a bit pricey! Too bad eventually one of the tech-companies will either figure out how to get the same technology in their devices or gobble-up this company to use their IP & eliminate them from competition at the same time. I wouldn't mind having that type of camera on my phone or iPad. #nice

  • lairdp

    Renee, viewers don't have to download photo's to view them, the  photos can be uploaded into a Lytro-hosted photo gallery (, which has widgets for posting to Twitter, Facebook, etc., as well as an embed tag for use on any web page the same way the first image ("an actual image") above was embedded into this story. Here's another random Lytro image to play with <iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="415" src="" width="400"></iframe>. Let's see how that works in this blog's comments. :-)

  • Eric S. Keezer

    I bet this will be perfect for capturing genuine, casual shots in public.

  • High Potential

    Come on people... think outside the box.  This is new wave :)  Don't be so negative.

  • wileywiggins

    I was interested in the camera until I saw the design, which basically gave up on the problem of how to keep the device small and simple but also adapted to a good ergonomic shape for actually taking pictures. The designers can pat themselves on the back all they want, but something different was called for here. 

  • Yves de Vresse

    I really like the design which is also a strong communication tool. Just one question : what was the equipment they used to shoot the nice packshot of the camera ?

  • UncleGroOve

    Go to the Lytro website and read the comments on the blog. To many users (me included) the form factor is a no-go. basically if I want to have everything in focus I need to have the firmest possible grip on the unit in order to minimize camera shake. And as much as Mr Ng and his lytrogeeks want to move "beyond" a certain form factor, I don't see how much they will gain by using a tube design.
    Still - plenty of criticism out there about many other points, i.e. prints, web publishing, etc.
    So I'll wait for the *consumers* to buy the gadget before I decide if I'll want to own one.

  • High Potential

    Renee: Nobody mentioned that these new products are for the professional photographer.  Yes, social sharing is the target group here.

    Also, when you look at Lytro's example Living Pictures, do you have to download (& save) them to view them?  No.  The file is loaded, yes... but is not saved locally. 

  • Renee

    The only problem I have with this, is that it's really not the sort of thing
    designed for pro photography (which is absolutely fine, my point follows) but that it looks like they're aiming for the social media/online sharing experience.

    That would be cool and all, just look at Hipstimatic. The problem is that apps like that have Facebook/twitter integration as part of their experience but if
    Lytro wants users to share "living pictures" it's not really going to happen through FB and sharing files to be downloaded in order to be viewed is pretty much exactly the opposite of what social media has evolved into.

  • Russell

    This form factor and design are very well suited to video - much more so than still photography. Very interested in seeing where this goes in the near future. 

  • Rob Riggins

    Not a fan said, "I will be waiting until Lytro gets these issues fixed ..."

    It hasn't been released yet, as you know. These items may be issues, but they may not. Let's wait for the hands-on reviews.

  • Charlie Seto

    The '90s and 2k's were heavily biased by a focus on technical specifications. It feels like the teens are moving towards experience, UI...all "soft" stuff that doesn't fit well on a specification datasheet for easy comparison between models.