Google's Street View cameras go far beyond roads and paths. Skiing at Big White Ski Resort in Canada, I saw a Google snowmobile with 9 cameras covering a 360-degree circular view mounted on its rear. Google originally put Canada's Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort on Google Maps for the Olympics, and now includes Squaw, Breckenridge and Deer Valley among its winter sports venues. They also show tourist destinations like the White House, Antarctica, Swiss railway routes and the Amazon River.
Lytro, a Mountain View company, has just started delivering cameras that use rays of light instead of dots or pixels define pictures. Ren Ng, founder and CEO, worked on the technology for his 2006 Stanford University doctoral thesis, entitled Digital Light Field Photography (www.lytro.com/renng-thesis.pdf). He points out that photographers often shoot a picture and then find the wrong part of the picture is in focus.
A photgrapher can quickly capture a bird in a flowering bush before it flies away. Click on the bird, and it will come into focus. Click on a flower and focus will move from the bird to the flower. The technology could be useful for shopping sites like eBay where you want to inspect goods closely. For example, you could inspect clothing and china by focusing and zooming to check for defects. To experience Lytro's technology, check out the Picture Gallery at www.lytro.com.
A camera with a small aperture (lens opening) can focus over a long range and needs good light. Enlarging the aperture tends to make some of the picture lose focus — the depth of field is reduced. This may or may not be a desired effect. Sometimes you want a face in focus and a blurred background. The Lytro Camera has an f/2 aperture, larger than the iPhone 4S's f/2.4 aperture, enabling it to take low-light shots. It lacks flash.
The Lytro Camera has two modes, Everyday Mode where the user controls zoom and the focus is fixed, and Creative Mode where the user can also bring a specific subject into focus by touching it on the camera's screen. There is no viewfinder. In Everyday Mode the maximum zoom level is 3.5x and in Creative Mode it's 8x.
The Lytro Camera works best when subjects are not too distant. In Everyday Mode, according to user Adam Gould, with no zoom it can change focus for objects between 6 inches and 7 feet away. At 3.5x zoom, refocusing works for objects that are 3 feet and 60 feet from the camera.
It comes with wireless connectivity to Lytro Desktop software for the Apple Mac. Windows support is due later this year. Each picture is about 16MB in a proprietary LFP format and can be exported to 1080 by 1080 pixel JPG files. Lytro Web is a web service for storing and sharing pictures, whether public or unlisted.
Challenges, Photo Walks and Lytro Web encourage users to share experiences. Investors include NEA, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock and K9 Ventures. The Lytro Camera is fun, but at $399 to $499, is currently of limited appeal. As with many breakthrough technology products, pioneering users are experimenting to find out where it works best.
Angela Hey advises technology companies on marketing and business development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.