How Do You Market A Breakthrough Camera Like The Lytro? Very, Very Cleverly

We get hands-on with the new Lytro camera. Sure, the tech’s impressive, but if this thing succeeds it’ll be because Lytro turns every user into a salesman.

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!

A Lytro image of the shot above. Reload the page if it’s not showing up.

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.

Lytro Turns Every User Into A Salesman

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.

Making Trade-Offs

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.

An Old-School User Experience

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]

Add New Comment


  • HumphreyPL

    I really like the idea but I think you have a point about the instant gratification. I think if they were able to add a Iphone / Android attachement to allow instant viewing and uploading that would be cool but I think they should have a default focus point and image and once click on could allow change of focus. Great article.

  • KKB

    Think more than direct marketing or by word of mouth, to publish your picture to the web, you need to upload the pictures to Lytro's website and have to share the link to the social platform or sent it to friends. When they open the picture it comes out with Lytro's logo and signature effects. Not sure whether Lytro would make it as a open source the image format so that others can also include in the picture viewing tools.

  • A.

    I was so looking forward to my new Lytro a few weeks ago, but the camera really disappointed. I will likely send it back. The effect of "Living Pictures" can truly only be seen if you take macro-like pictures where you have one object very, very, very close to the camera. Other than that it is useless. Also, low-light quality is awful. Hence, I'd rather take a high-ISO shot at f16 with my SLR and take objects out of focus if I want to using software I already have. It's the same effect at much better quality. Having said that, the approach Lytro is taking with lightfields could be very well usable in the future, e.g. to focus a surveillance camera CSI-style.

    One question: anyone think it's worth keeping the 1st gen Lytro as a collectors item? 

  • GKirk

    Just got mine a couple of days ago... works as advertised, but with one big caveat. There is no "standard" light field camera image file. At this point, Lytro even has a clause in their end user agreement which prohibits the user from reverse engineering the camera data files or the camera it’s self. Looks like they intend to create an ITunes like environment where they maintain complete control from camera to web. The only files the user has access to are jpg "snapshots" which are no better than can be obtained from the cheapest cell phone.
    No professional photographer will seriously consider it as it stands today, with no use of standards (Adobe flash is used to display the processed proprietary light field photos)  ,  with no access to the raw files other than thru proprietary software which runs on only Apple OSX latest version, and with no place to display their work other than thru Facebook or the Lytro site.

  • Alek

    Want instant gratification? Add this to a SLR and let it detect where the default focus should be. Taking pictures at a party and find after the fact there was something going on in the background that you didn't notice before? Refocus on it later when you share it. The tech has a long way to come to get to that point but it's amazingly promising.

  • stefano aldighieri

    well, at the end of the day, this is NOT a camera.
    it is a toy, a gadget, a conversation starter.
    i would not even compare it to the polaroid, which does have applications in professional photography (back on a medium format, for example), in art (there are countless examples), and of course as a toy, gimmick, gadget  as well.

    so, in that respect, it may or may not be a big success (in which case the technology may evolve and become relevant for SOMETHING), or flop as soon as the initial excitement fizzles out.

    the facebook connection is irrelevant - at least to me, since i find that to be yet another toy, gadget, waste of time, which will also fizzle out (just like its previous equally useless predecessor, myspace) ... :-)

  • Daniel Ostrower

    This is a pretty good summary of the dilemma. The basic problem with Lytro is that it isn't clear who it is for. People (even early adopters) hire products to jobs for them (practical and emotional). I can tell you why people hire cell phone cameras. I can tell you why they hire SLRs. I can't figure out who would hire Lytro and what for (other than to have something new). Does it make it easier to capture and share moments? No. It makes the overall process more cumbersome. Does it improve creative expression? Not really. The limited image quality is a huge limiter and the creative user tends to want to control his/her output, not open it up for others to mess with. The only jobs it seems to do are 1) slightly improve the ease of image capture by removing focus (but come on, is focusing really hard); or 2) allow us to get creative with other people's photos (but does anyone want to do this?). Someday lightfield technology may be a disruptive photography technology, but not today. I think Lytro should be looking for very specific B2B applications.

  • Business

    I'm surprised by all the dismissive comments here. I'm a new gadget skeptic a fair amount of the time, and I do think the Lytro is an "embryonic" product, so to speak. But it's a cheap (relatively speaking) consumer implementation of an ground-breaking technology. I'm absolutely certain that, in conjunction with advances in the technology, we'll start to see people making use of it in ways that we can't even imagine yet (both artistic and practical). Give it time.

    I feel like I'm reading the comments of the same people that couldn't imagine wanting to walk around with an entire music library at their disposal.

  • rockfish66

    Actually, I think you're reading the comments of the same people who dissed the Zune.
     It's not the technology that is being dismissed, it's the poorly thought-through product and functionality. As I said below, it looks like a rush job to produce an income stream to support further development.

  • Kanji Pictographix

    Just sharpen my picture if I goof. 'Living pictures' is a contrivance.

  • VA

    First of all: Lytro is fake, it doesnt exist. Second: It is a damn useless gadget for a hipster crowd? There is no market for that thing...

  • absurge

    the "drew" dog picture is blurry all over... not the best example

    The only reason i would ever need to fix blurry pics is when i can't hold the camera steady enough or the subject moves. this doesn't even fix that. i really don't get how this is very useful at all. focusing on objects with any camera is easy enough and you can review on the spot anyway.

    i would compare this camera to a camera that forces you to crop afterwards. but who really does that? just take the picture right the first time.

    it gimmicky. i can't think of a single person who would benefit from using this, aside from lytro being a fun way to let children take photos.

    sorry to be a downer, but if feels like many people are drinking the kool-aid


  • James Daugherty

    I was stoked when I first saw this. After reading a few articles it looks like unless the price drops & the photo quality rises, Lytro will have the same fate as the Polaroid.

  • Paul Stansbury

    So, the Lytro is basically a new version of a polaroid in that you can take pictures for the fun of it, instead of focusing on one aspect or one specific object. Sounds cool, but my iPhone handles that job well. Why spend more money on something that I already have?