It’s been less than a year since Lytro started shipping its remarkable light field camera, an entirely new type of camera based on the Stanford Ph.D. thesis of founder Ren Ng. But today, the company announced a set of new software tools that will allow users to take greater advantage of the "living images" produced by the camera, which has been so popular the young startup has had problems meeting demand.
If you’ve never used a Lytro camera before, here’s the basic gist. The rectangular device contains a more developed version of a camera Ng built as a PhD student, which used 100 small cameras to capture an image that could be focused after the fact. Snap a shot with the gadget, and the company’s desktop software allows you to choose what part of the image you want to focus on. By capturing the entire "light field," or all light in a given environment, the camera produces a file that contains thousands of different versions of a single shot.
Today’s software release introduces a new set of tools for its existing camera, giving users a greater scope of editing and sharing capabilities. Perspective Shift is a new feature that lets users turn their photos into holographic environments, where clicking the image lets you explore the different points of focus within a single image. "It brings living pictures to life in an entirely new way," Ng explains. You can embed an explorable version of your images on Facebook or Twitter, too. Meanwhile, Living Filters let users apply nine interactive effects to their images, like Film Noir and Crayon, which exploits the image-refocusing capabilities by layering the focused portion of each image with after effects. The update will be free to existing users on December 4, while new Lytro owners will receive the software when they buy their camera.
The new features are great, but more interesting is what the announcement tells us about Lytro itself, which is essentially a software company masquerading as a camera company. Traditionally, a camera company is expected to turn out a new piece of hardware for every holiday season, giving consumers a reason to buy a new mode. But Lytro operates on a fairly radical logic: The hardware—the light field camera—remains the same. What changes is the software—the tools users have available for editing, viewing, and sharing their photos.
"When we send the pictures through to the web or to mobile phones, the light field engine software travels with the pictures," Ng said recently. "We use modern web technologies to build that in there, so when your friends and family see your picture on Facebook, they don’t need to install software to be able to have an interactive experience." At their office in Mountain View, an in-house team of designers and developers work not on updating the camera but on better ways to unpack the remarkable package of data that lives inside every light field image.
This strategy also plays to Lytro’s strengths and weaknesses as a startup. Bringing new hardware to market—be it cameras or phones—is an expensive project. Though Ng’s much-lauded thesis had investors lining up at his door after he graduated, and raising $60 million is nothing to sneeze at, launching a new version of the camera would be a challenge for a company that’s only a year old. As a user experience strategy, focusing on software is a deft move. Giving existing users a new way to use a camera they already own helps to reengage early adopters, who are especially prone to drift away from new gadgets once they grow bored. It’s a double-pronged approach—excite existing users with free tools, help them push their images through social channels, and hook new users who may not know of Lytro.
"The product was a device," Ng said yesterday. "But just as much as a device, it was a new kind of picture, which threaded into social networks in a way that meant you didn’t have to install new software." Sure, Ng is the creator of one of photography’s most radical innovations in recent history. But a less glamorous revolution—in software—is what’s driving his company. For more on the new software, plus pricing for Lytro’s cameras, check out their website.