A camera that lets you focus a picture after you've taken it. That's a key selling point of a new device announced Thursday by a company called Lytro.
It's called a "light field camera," and the company said it introduces "a new way to take and experience pictures." The main difference from conventional cameras is that the Lytro camera captures all the rays of light in a given high-definition shot, which allows for new capabilities after the image is captured -- such as focusing on individual sections of the image later.
The camera comes with an 8x optical zoom and an f/2 lens, and the company describes the results as "living pictures" because they can be endlessly re-focused.
The camera is based on research conducted at Stanford University by Dr. Ren Ng. "Light field photography was once only possible with 100 cameras tethered to a supercomputer in a lab," he said in a statement.
The Lytro camera has a light field sensor to capture the color, intensity and direction of every ray of light coming into the lens. According to the company, the light field consists of 11 million light rays of data, or 11 megarays. The information collected includes the direction of each ray, which a regular camera does not record.
To process that wealth of information, a "light field engine" allows for focusing post-capture. The full range of the light field accompanies the file, so the interaction can take place not only in the camera, but through Web browsers, mobile phones, or tablets. No special software is required.
Since all the available light is captured, the camera's physical design has been reduced to just two buttons -- power and shutter. The f/2 aperture is constant. A glass touchscreen is available for viewing and refocusing the images on the camera, and the camera weighs less than 8 ounces.
The camera is also designed to be ready immediately. It turns on instantly, has an instant shutter and, of course, does not need to auto-focus. It also does not need flash, since it is capturing all available light, and the company said it performs well in low-light situations.
Because all the light is recorded, the company said all Lytro images are "inherently 3D." Next year, the company will offer special software that will enable any light field image to be viewed in 3D -- and allow viewers to shift the scene's perspective.
Two models are available, an 8 GB and a 16GB, which store 350 and 750 images respectively. Prices are $399 and $499, and Lytro is offering free online storage for customers. A free desktop application, currently available only for Macs, allows for management and sharing of light field images. Lytro is taking orders now for delivery early next year.
Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at NPD Group, noted that "a lot of what drives the sale of high-end cameras is the desire to take photos creatively, and not just take an in-focus shot." He added that the Lytro could have some of that same appeal, in that an image's apparent depth of field can be manipulated after the shot is taken.
Rubin said Lytro has indicated it "wants to license the technology to others, so we could see this technology in cameras with better recognized brands."