Lytro Leaps Into Light

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  • February 28, 2012

Today we are thrilled to announce the launch of the Lytro, a new type of camera that will amaze you.

Photography is a field that hasn’t fundamentally changed in two hundred years: since its advent in the 19th century, we have taken rays of light, manipulated them physically in glass lenses, and drawn these rays of light to a single focal point. There have been of course major advances: we had the first color photograph in 1861, the first instant Polaroid camera in 1948, and the invention of the first CCD digital sensor at Bell Labs in 1969. But in each of these advances, the fundamental optics have remained the same: once a photo gets snapped, it’s a proverbial moment in time, frozen for all eternity.

All that is now about to change. If a picture is worth a thousand words, clicking on different parts of this living picture ought to be worth a million:

How is this possible? NEA has been very fortunate to have known Dr. Ren Ng since his time at Stanford, where he won the prize for the best Ph.D. in computer science. Ren developed an astounding, and astoundingly simple, idea: by placing a thin microlens array in front of a digital image sensor, he was able to capture the vector data of each ray of light coming into a lens from a single exposure. If the vector data of each light ray is known, then in computation we can change the vector of each ray. We can bend light after the fact.

In layman’s terms: photographs taken with this camera are like time machines. We can go back to the precise moment the light rays were captured, and we can capture them in different ways, even though the moment has already happened. We can change what the camera focuses on, we can change the depth of field, we can correct optical distortions, we can take 3D images from a single lens—and this is just the start.

It’s rare in our jobs as venture capitalists to have the privilege to back such a fundamental technological advance. This isn’t yet another social-media photo sharing site, or a company devoted to designing Twitter wallpaper. This will literally change the way everyone sees the world. Most excitingly, a technology like this has geopolitical and economic implications – as more and more cameras are made like this, it will shift the basis of competition in the $30 billion photography industry from glass-polishing cleanrooms in Germany and Japan to Mac-powered lofts in Silicon Valley. Light rays, like bits, will be manipulated with keystrokes instead of with expensive pieces of glass.

And this is to say nothing for applications beyond a consumer product: imagine a refocusable security camera, or a single x-ray that scans at all depths with just one exposure. We will one day look back at today’s cameras, and they will seem like black-and-white vacuum-tube televisions.

The Lytro hits the market today. You can get yours here: