Who Will Be the Instagram of Light Field Photography?
The $400 Lytro camera is one of the most technologically magical devices a consumer can buy today: It’s a camera that captures not pictures, but light itself. This means you can adjust how the image is formed after you take it. In particular, you can adjust how the picture is focused. It’s amazing.
But the current Lytro is, still, an awkward camera that doesn’t take especially great photos, its magic post-processing capability notwithstanding. Light field photography is the future, but this future is probably not going to look as weird as the current Lytro indicates.
Eventually we’ll get light field photography where we live: smartphones. How? Perhaps with a new sensor package from Lytro itself, or perhaps from a lab at MIT. Last week I talked with Kshitij Marwah, a researcher at Camera Culture in the MIT Media Lab, who showed me how a team he’s on is going to bring the magic to the rest of us.
I won’t pretend that I understand exactly how Marwah’s special filters and computational photography software turns standard sensors into light field-capable cameras, but if he is right that he can refine the technology and make light field cameras as small and cheap as current smartphone cameras, then the digital photography business as we know it is in for an entertaining upheaval.
Here’s what I am looking forward to: Non-destructive Instagram-like services. Instead of photo sharing services that mutilate flat digital images in the name of art or fun, we’ll get third-party light field processing that does much more with images. Changing focus of an image is just one of the things you can do when you have light field data. You can also change apparent aperture, you can extract some 3D data, and you can manipulate light to work for you deep inside an image, in ways far beyond what you can do with current software.
The state of photography has always existed as a continuum between image capture and post-capture editing. Light field photography will push the locus, for many people, further towards the post-capture side than it’s ever been. That represents an opportunity for teams who can come up with new ways (algorithms and interfaces) to deal with light field data. For all I know, Instagram may end up being the Instagram of this new photography, but it could just as easily be a new company that takes on this role. Or, quite likely, a large player like Instagram, Google, or Yahoo will acquire its way into a more powerful position in this future market.
Note: I’m aware this column is longer than my standard 250 words. I hope you don’t mind.
Lytro’s light field camera technology could supercharge future iPhones (Ars Technica)
Lytro’s Ren Ng on the Future of Photography (TEDx video)
The Impossible Project resurrects instant film (Opportunity Notes)
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