The first thing you need to know about owning the newfangled Lytro camera is that it’s a lot like owning an adorable new puppy. Take it out in public and strangers will walk up to you, cooing about how cute it is and, perhaps, asking to play with it. (As for how well it helps to pick up strangers—that will require more research.) People you never talk to in the office will come over to your desk and strike up conversations about it. And you’ll end up answering questions that don’t really go anywhere, like, "Oh, you got one?" Obviously, yes!
That alone should tell you a bit about what makes the Lytro so alluring at this early stage of development: It’s a chance to own a significant leap forward in photography. As opposed to other cameras, which focus on only one object at a time, the Lytro doesn’t need to be focused at all. It’s a true point and shoot, which allows you to simply capture a moment, without having to figure out if you really got it right.
Does that mean it’s the best camera in the world? Absolutely not: Like a lot of early-stage, potentially breakthrough gadgets, it offers a trade-off between basic limitations and tantalizing possibilities. And, for those business heads among us, it offers a rather fascinating little glimpse into how you sell and market something truly unique in the age of Facebook and Twitter.
If Lytro turns out to be a success, everyone will assume that it was driven by triumphant, breakthrough tech. But in these early days, Lytro’s success is predicated on two simpler factors. One is that unique form factor. Unlike any other camera in the world, you hold it like a spyglass. Your entire posture changes. So anyone looking at you realizes that you’re not using any regular camera. And in so doing, you become a walking advertisement for Lytro. That unique posture is the reason so many strangers notice you when you use it. Here’s a typical conversation you can expect to have:
Stranger: Oh that camera’s so cool!
You: Oh yeah, I just got it.
Stranger: How does it work?
You: Well you see …
You unwittingly become the camera’s best salesman. But maybe the smartest thing about the Lytro is that this experience is precisely replicated in the online world. The only way to see Lytro’s pictures is in the software that comes with the camera—without it, you couldn’t fiddle around with different focus points. Within the software is a seamless path to exporting your photos to Facebook. Once your photos are posted, your friends can play around with the Lytro image. And, if they want to find out more about Lytro, they can, of course, click through to arrive at the company’s homepage. "It does drive quite a bit of traffic," Eric Cheng, Lytro’s director of photography, tells Co.Design. "But we’re not overselling it because that upsets the community." But they are, nonetheless, turning every single Lytro user into a viral spreader of the technology, with each and every Lytro photo they post to Facebook. Very clever indeed.
Lytro takes massive images—some 16 megabytes each—which is a function of how the camera works. Think about it like this: Your typical point-and-shoot takes images that are about 8 megabytes. But every single one of them is dedicated to capturing a single picture. The Lytro is doing something else entirely. Rather than capturing a single picture, it’s really capturing the direction of all the light that’s bouncing around a room. So each image it takes is really something like a composite of many, many pictures. But that means that each snapshot you look at issuing from a Lytro camera isn’t necessarily all that impressive. If you remove the refocusing feature, the still images themselves don’t wow you. (Consider the Lytro shots on this page.)
Lytro, of course, would argue that this isn’t the point of a Lytro image. Looking at it in the way I just did is something akin to complaining that a creme brûlée has no chocolate, and the tech heads that will buy this thing will be enamored with Lytro as an alternative to regular photography. But I’m pretty sure that your average recreational photographer looking for a new replacement camera won’t be willing to fork over $400 for a gizmo whose still images don’t quite compare to those of a decent camera phone.
Of course, those still images will get better, very fast. That’s simply the nature of megabytes and processing power. The question for Lytro is whether they can improve fast enough to cross over into a wider audience—and whether early adopters will find the refocusing feature interesting enough in the interim to sustain the business.
In the meantime, the company has been hosting numerous photo walks with its staff members, with the aim of fostering a community of Lytro evangelists. Again, that’s some very smart marketing.
The experience of taking a picture today isn’t anything like it was 15 years ago. With old analogue cameras, you took a picture and found out what you got only later, after the pictures came back. Today, with those sizable preview screens on your digital camera, the act of photography has become mixed in with the editing and consumption of the images. Your digital camera today has less in common with a film camera than it does with a photo booth. It taps into our obsession with instant gratification and our natural vanity.
But the Lytro is a bit more like an old-school camera in many ways. Because of its tiny screen, the experience of looking immediately at the images you’ve taken is somewhat unsatisfying. It’s fun to tap around and see roughly what you can refocus on in a picture you just took—but you won’t really know what you’ve got until you upload the pictures to your computer. (That said, the Lytro’s touch screen and web app boast excellent UI design: simple and seamless.)
And therein, I think, is Lytro’s weird dilemma: As fun as the images are, the real payoff with them isn’t immediate. While we’ve all been trained to demand instant gratification from the pictures we take, the Lytro demands that we slow down. So even though you can be more sure that you’ve captured a moment simply because you don’t need to focus, the moment becomes disconnected from reliving it. If anything, Lytro makes you appreciate how strange the modern picture-taking process is—and how it could all change, given the right push. Time will tell if that clicks with consumers.
[All images: Drew Anthony Smith/Fast Company]