The latest Internet sensation is Lytro, the high-tech camera start-up with $50 million in venture capital financing that promises to launch a "picture revolution" by upending everything that we know about taking pictures. In other words, with this camera, you shoot first, focus later. And when you take the time to focus, your photo turns into an amazing work of 3D art with crisp, high-definition details. Lytro calls them living pictures, and claims that this movement from 2D to 3D photos is just as revolutionary as the movement from film to digital.
Without a doubt, the effects are stunning - at least, what we can see of the Lytro effects from the website. For now, the camera is unavailable, and the company's founder only notes that the final product will be available at a price point below $10,000. The possibilities are certainly enticing. Imagine using the combined power of 100 cameras to take all of the out-of-focus, blurred photos you often end up taking and magically transforming them into 3D artwork with high-definition detail. That's the promise of Lytro, which uses a revolutionary technology known as Light Field to achieve these effects.
Did I mention the camera fits in your pocket?
But that's exactly where the questions start. How do you print these 3D photos? And more importantly, did this "picture revolution" come too late? This sounds like an R&D project that got the green light before mobile phones took over the camera business. Not only are mobile phones dominating the picture space (the iPhone 4 is the single most popular type of "camera" used on Flickr right now) — the type of photos that people want has changed.
People today (and especially hipsters who delight in the retro-vintage technology vibe and use apps like Instagram) want photos that look damaged, scratched, out-of-focus and over-exposed. It's the distressed-jeans ethos as applied to photography. Imagine acid-washing your beautiful 8 mega-pixel photos, and you get the idea. Indeed, people actually pay for "premium" filters that make their photos look like a photo you'd take in the 1970s.
At the end of the day, is Lytro a technology or a business? If it's a business, there's no question that this "magic camera" will return untold billions to their investors. If it's just a technology, then the returns are not so certain. There's no doubt that Lytro would have disrupted the likes of Kodak and Polaroid, but did it arrive too late for the revolutionaries of the social-networking, mobile-phone generation to truly appreciate?