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New Camera Focuses Shot After It's Taken


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Auto-focus cameras hit the stores back in the 1970s and made it incredibly easier for the average consumer to get a good shot. And later, the digital camera made it possible for just about anyone to process their own pictures at home on a computer.

Well, now comes a camera that could represent another kind of photography revolution. It's called the light field camera. Take the picture, but focus it afterwards wherever you want inside the frame. The first consumer version comes from a company called Lytro.

And Ren Ng is the company's founder and CEO and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

REN NG: Thanks so much for having me on the show, Robert.

SIEGEL: And gives us an idea of how this works, how this kind of camera works.

NG: Our core innovation is something called light field technology that goes back to Stanford in the mid-1990s. And they used to study it with huge arrays of cameras, you know, literally a hundred cameras in a grid, a room full - plugged into supercomputers taking many pictures at the same time to try to back out the light field.

I worked on it for my Ph.D. and the company has been bringing that to a commercial forum. We miniaturized it by turning that room full of cameras into a new kind of sensor that went inside the body of one camera.

SIEGEL: So I'm trying to imagine this. If we think of, say, a big auditorium with many, many rows of people seated in it and we take a picture of the people sitting in the auditorium, we could actually pick a row and focus on that or focus on all of them at the same time? Or how many choices would you have?

NG: It depends on the depth of field that you have in the picture. So for regular photography, if you have some of those rows in the auditorium be out of focus and selectively focused, then in a light field camera you could refocus from row to row or person to person just like it would look in a regular camera if you could turn that manual focus ring.

In a manual camera, if you turn the focus ring, you can see the focal plane pull back and forward in depth, and that's exactly what we compute from the light field using the light field engine.

SIEGEL: Would I be able to, with this camera, take an image off a card, say, stick it into my laptop and with ordinary home equipment - I assume some, you know, some software - be able to view, say, many different images, different depths of the same picture I took with the camera?

NG: Yes, definitely. You can refocus directly on camera. The camera will also install software onto your PC so that - onto your laptop - so that you can interact and refocus the pictures on your laptop. And then when you share those pictures online, these living pictures will go out into the world and carry the light field engine within them. And when that happens, your friends and family can see it, say, through the Internet or in social networks, and they can interact with it directly there without installing any software at all.

SIEGEL: I've logged into your website, lytro.com, and I'm looking at a picture of a Monarch butterfly with some - I wish I knew my flowers better - some flowers behind the Monarch butterfly and the tree. And here I'm going to click - double-click on a flower that is behind the butterfly, and it is - is it in - yes, it's in focus. I click...

NG: Yeah, that's right.

SIEGEL: ...on another flower, it's in focus.


NG: And if you click on the butterfly itself, it's just really striking, the sensation of discovery that you get when something, you know - but you can see clearly enough. You know it's a butterfly even when it's not in focus. But when you click on it and it comes crisply into focus, that sensation of discovery is something that I think really affects all of us emotionally. I see lots of people really love that picture. And when they get the butterfly crisply into focus, it really makes them smile.

SIEGEL: Ren Ng, thank you very much for talking with us today.

NG: Thanks so much, Robert. It's a pleasure to be on the show.

SIEGEL: That's Ren Ng, who's the founder of the Lytro Company. We were talking about the first consumer light field camera, which is just hitting the market. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.