Friday, October 21, 2011

From dissertation to product release

In 2006, Ren Ng's PhD research on lightfield photography won Stanford University's prize for best thesis in computer science as well as the internationally recognized ACM Dissertation award.

Since leaving Stanford, Dr. Ng has been busy starting up his own company called Lytro (Mountain View, CA, USA), to commercialize a camera based on the principles of lightfield technology while making it practical enough for everyday use [see the Vision Insider blog entry "Lightfield camera headed for the consumer market"].

This week saw the result of his efforts, as Lytro took the wraps off a set of three cameras that can all capture the color, intensity, and direction of all the light in a scene, enabling users to focus the images they take after the fact.

The cameras themselves aren't all that different -- except for the paint job on the outside. The first two, in Electric Blue and Graphite, cost $399 and are capable of storing 350 pictures. A Red Hot version -- at the somewhat higher price of $499 -- is capable of storing 750.

With no unnecessary modes or dials, the cameras feature just two buttons (power and shutter) and have a glass touch-screen that allows pictures to be viewed and refocused directly before they are downloaded to a computer.

To illustrate the capabilities of the new cameras, a number of Lytro employees and select testers have taken some snaps and uploaded the results to the company's so-called Living Pictures Gallery, where they can be viewed and refocused on the web.

As savvy a marketing idea as that is, I can't say the same behind the company's choice of computer platform which runs its free desktop application that imports pictures from camera to computer. Rather than produce software for the enormously popular Windows PC, the company chose to support Mac OS X in its initial release.

Despite this minor upset, the company does have more exciting projects in the works. Next year, for example, it plans to launch a set of software tools that will allow the lightfield pictures to be viewed on any 3-D display and to enable viewers to shift the perspective of the scene.

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