You’ve likely seen examples of 360º video on YouTube before, those curious little things that allow you to look around the scene as it plays out. Most of these come courtesy of custom rigs that people have created to capture video from all angles, using software to stitch them all together. Others are simply CGI that’s been rendered in the appropriate way to give you the full 360º view. Whilst these are amazing demonstrations of the technology they all share the same fundamental limitation: you’re rooted to the camera. True 3D video, where you’re able to move freely about the scene, is not yet a reality but it will be soon thanks to Lytro’s new camera, the Immerge.
That odd UFO looking device is the Immerge, containing hundreds of the lightfield sensors (the things that powered the original Lytro and the Illum) within each of its rings. There’s no change in the underlying technology, the lightfield sensors have the same intensity plus direction sensing capabilities, however these will be the first sensors in Lytro’s range to boast video capture. This, combined with the enormous array of sensors, allows the Immerge to capture all the details of a scene, including geometry and lighting. The resulting video, which needs to be captured and processed on a specially designed server that the camera needs, allows the viewer to move around the scene independently of the camera. Suffice to say that’s a big step up from the 360º video we’re used to seeing today and, I feel, is what 3D video should be.
The Immerge poses some rather interesting challenges however, both in terms of content production and its consumption. For starters it’s wildly different from any kind of professional camera currently available, one that doesn’t allow a crew to be anywhere near it whilst its filming (unless they want to be part of the scene). Lytro understands this and has made it remotely operable however that doesn’t detract from the fact that traditional filming techniques simply won’t work with the Immerge. Indeed this kind of camera demands a whole new way of thinking as you’re no longer in charge of where the viewer will be looking, nor where they’ll end up in a scene.
Similarly on the consumer end the Immerge relies on the burgeoning consumer VR industry in order to have an effective platform for it to really shine. This isn’t going to be a cinema style experience any time soon, the technology simply isn’t there, instead Immerge videos will likely be viewed by people at home on their Oculus Rifts or similar. There’s definitely a growing interest in this space by consumers, as I’ve detailed in the past, however for a device like the Immerge I’m not sure that’s enough. There’s potentially other possibilities that I’m not thinking of, like shooting on the Immerge and then editing everything down to a regular movie, which might make it more viable but i feel like that would be leaving so much of the Immerge’s potential at the door.
Despite all that though the Immerge does look like an impressive piece of kit and it will be able to do things that no other device is currently capable of doing. This pivot towards the professional video market could be the play that makes their struggle in the consumer market all worthwhile. We won’t have to wait long to see it either as Lytro has committed to the Immerge being publicly available in Q1 next year. Whether or not it resonates with the professional content creators and their consumers will be an interesting thing to see as the technology really does have a lot of promise.
It’s well known that the camera industry has been struggling for some time and the reason for that is simple: smartphones. There used to be a wide gap in quality between smartphones and dedicated cameras however that gap has closed significantly over the past couple years. Now the market segment that used to be dominated by a myriad of pocket cameras has all but evaporated. This has left something of a gap that some smaller companies have tried to fill like Lytro did with their quirky lightfield cameras. Light is the next company to attempt to revitalize the pocket camera market, albeit in a way (and at a price point) that’s likely to fall as flat as Lytro’s Illum did.
The Light-L16 is going to be their debut device, a pocket camera that contains no less than 16 independent camera modules scattered about its face. For any one picture up to 10 of these cameras can fire at once and, using their “computational photography” algorithms the L-16 can produce images of up to 52MP. On the back there’s a large touchscreen that’s powered by a custom version of Android M, allowing you to view and manipulate your photos with the full power of a Snapdragon 820 chip. All of this can be had for $1299 if you preorder soon or $1699 when it finally goes into full production. It sounds impressive, and indeed some of the images look great, however it’s not going to be DSLR quality, no matter how many camera modules they cram into it.
You see those modules they’re using are pulled from smartphones which means they share the same limitations. The sensors themselves are going to be tiny, around 1/10th the size of most DSLR cameras and half again smaller than full frames. The pixels on these sensors then are much smaller, meaning they capture less detail and perform worse in low light than DSLRs do. You can overcome some of these limitations through multiple image captures, like the L-16 is capable of, however that’s not going to give you the full 52MP that they claim due to computational losses. There are some neat tricks they can pull like adjusting the focus point (ala Lytro) after the photo is taken but as we’ve seen that’s not a killer feature for cameras to have.
Those modules are also arranged in a rather peculiar way, and I’m not talking about the way they’re laid out on the device. There’s 5 x 35mm, 5 x 70mm and 6 x 150mm. This is fine in and of itself however they can’t claim true optical zoom over that range as there’s no graduations between all those modules. Sure you can interpolate using the different lenses but that’s just a fancy way of saying digital zoom without the negative connotations that come with it. The hard fact of the matter is that you can’t have prime lenses and act like you have zooms at the same time, they’re just physically not the same thing.
Worst of all is the price which is already way above entry level DSLRs even if you purchase them new with a couple lenses. Sure I can understand form factor is a deal breaker here however this camera is over double the thickness of current smartphones. Add that to the fact that it’s a separate device and I don’t think people who are currently satisfied with their smartphones are going to pick one up just because. Just like the Lytro before it the L-16 is going to struggle to find a market outside of a tiny niche of camera tech enthusiasts, especially at the full retail price.
This may just sound like the rantings of a DSLR purist who likes nothing else, and in part it is, however I’m fine with experimental technology like this as long as it doesn’t make claims that don’t line up with reality. DSLRs are a step above other cameras in numerous regards mostly for the control they give you over how the image is crafted. Smartphones do what they do well and are by far the best platform for those who use them exclusively. The L-16 however is a halfway point between them, it will provide much better pictures than any smartphone but it will fall short of DSLRs. Thinking any differently means ignoring the fundamental differences that separates DSLRs and smartphone cameras, something which I simply can’t do.
I first wrote about Lytro a while back when they introduced the first consumer grade lightfield camera to the market. It was an exciting development as this kind of technology was out of the reach of pretty much anyone prior to the original Lytro. Still whilst it was interesting from a technological perspective I just couldn’t bring myself to buy one, especially not after I picked up my DSLR again. Ever since then though I hadn’t heard anything further from Lytro, neither new developments nor tales of their demise, so I was left wondering if the Lytro that I envisioned was ever going to eventuate. As it turns out whilst we might not be seeing Lytro sensors in all DSLRs we will be seeing a serious piece of camera kit and it’s quite incredible.
Lytro announced the Illum which is their first entry into the upper end of the photography market. It looks very similar to a lot of the mirrorless 4/3rds that are available now although it doesn’t have an interchangeable lens system and lacks a viewfinder of any description. Normally these would be things that would count heavily against it but the specifications of the Illum are, honestly, so incredible that if anyone else had announced them I’d say they were fake. That lens is a 30-250mm F/2.0 thats capable of doing 1:3 macro that’s made up of only 11 elements in 3 groups which sounds downright impossible when you compare it to similar DSLR lenses like the Canon 70-250mm F/2.8 (19 groups with 23 elements). The sensor has also been buffed up considerably tipping the scales at 40 Megarays which gives you a print resolution of approximately 5 megapixels. That’s well below most DSLRs available today but it’s above the crucial 4MP threshold required for a standard sized photograph. The back also sports a 4 inch touchscreen that includes a depth histogram to aide with taking highly refocusable pictures.
Now anyone who’s made the mistake of becoming interested in high end photography gear will look at those specs, mostly the lens, and wonder how a startup like Lytro was able to do something that the big lens makers haven’t been able to accomplish with their decades of experience. Lytro says that their seemingly impossible lens specifications comes from the fact that they’re doing most of what the lens does mechanically in software instead. This drastically cuts down on the element count and enables the lens to do things that you’d usually require multiple, distinct lenses to do. I’m willing to give Lytro the benefit of the doubt here but I’ll have to see one in action before I make a final judgement on just how good it is.
One thing that I find a little strange about the design is the way Lytro believes it will be used. The Illum angled body isn’t done just for aesthetics, instead it’s been designed to be used as if you’re shooting at hip level rather than at eye level. Whilst any photographer will tell you that one of the fastest ways to grow is to stop shooting everything at eye level shooting at hip level has its own set of limitations and I’m not sure that designing a camera around that idea is completely sound. Again this is something I’d want to see in action first before laying down judgement but it’s something that feels it’s different just for the sake of it.
The low final resolution is also likely to be something that will hinder adoption among more serious photography enthusiasts. Whilst you’ll be able to print the traditional photo size anything larger than that starts to become problematic. This probably isn’t a problem for those who are just viewing them digitally, which more and more people are doing these days, but it does mean that the Illum is probably one step short for the professional and likely a little too expensive for the intrigued amateur looking to move up from their phone camera. The original Lytro was in a similar market position though and was obviously successful enough for Lytro to continue development so there’s probably a market for it that I’m just not seeing.
All this being said I’d really love to get my hands on one of the Illums to see just what its capable of and whether the output from it is enough for me to ditch my DSLR for certain things. The lens on the Illum is what intrigues me the most as its capabilities are just incredible and I really want to see how it compares to similar offerings from the long standing DSLR companies. We don’t have to wait long though as the Illum is scheduled to hit the streets on July 15th for a cool $1499 and whilst I probably won’t shell out for one immediately I’d certainly be interested in borrowing one to give it the once over.
One of my not-so-secret passions is photography. I got into it about 5 years ago when I was heading over to New Zealand with my then girlfriend (now wife) as I wanted a proper camera, something that could capture some decent shots. Of course I got caught up in the technology of it all and for the next year or so I spent many waking hours putting together my dream kit of camera bodies, lenses and various accessories that I wanted to buy. My fiscal prudence stopped me short of splurging much, I only lashed out once for a new lens, but the passion has remained even if it’s taken a back seat to my other ambitions.
According to posts made by Boudoir photographers in CT, one of the greatest challenges is getting the focus just right so that your subject is clear and the other details fade into the background, preferably with a nice bokeh. I struggled with this very problem recently when we threw a surprise party for my wife and one of her dearest friend’s birthdays. Try as I might to get the depth of field right on some of the preparations we were doing (like the Super Mario styled cupcakes) I just couldn’t get it 100% right, at least not without the help of some post production. You can imagine then how excited I was when I heard about light field technology and what it could mean for photography.
In essence a light field camera would give you the ability to change the focus, almost infinitely, after the picture had been taken. It can do this as it doesn’t capture light in the same way that most cameras do. Instead of taking one picture through one lens light field cameras instead capture thousands of individual rays of light and the direction from which they were coming. Afterwards you can use this data to focus the picture wherever you want and even produce 3D images. Even though auto-focus has done a pretty good job of eliminating the need to hand focus shots the ability to refocus after the fact is a far more powerful advancement, one that could revolutionize the photography industry.
I first heard about it when Lytro, a light field based startup, mentioned that they were developing the technology back in June. At the time I was thinking that they’d end up being a manufacturer or licensor of their technology, selling their sensors to the likes of Canon and Nikon. However they’d stated that they were going to make a camera first before pursuing that route and I figured that meant we wouldn’t see anything from them for at least another year or two. I was quite surprised to learn that they have their cameras up for pre-order and delivery is expected early next year.
As a camera it defies current norms almost completely. It’s a square cylinder with an LCD screen on the back and the capture button is a capacitive notch on the top. From that design I’d assume you’d take pictures with it by using it like a ye olde telescope which will be rather comical to watch. There’s 2 models available, an 8GB and 16GB one, that can hold 350 and 750 pictures respectively. The effective resolution that you get out of the Lytro camera seems to be about 1MP but the images are roughly 20MB big. The models come in at $399 and $499 respectively which, on the surface, seems a bit rich for something that does nothing but take really small photos.
However I think Lytro is going the right way with this technology, much like Tesla did when they first released the Roadster. In essence the Lytro camera is a market test as $400 is almost nothing compared to the amount of money a photography enthusiast will spend on a piece of kit (heck I spent about that much on the single lens I bought). Many then will be bought as a curiosity and that will give Lytro enough traction to continue developing their light field technology, hopefully one day releasing a sensor for the DSLR market. From the amount of buzz I’ve read about them over the past few days it seems like that is a very real possibility and I’d be one of the teaming masses lining up to get a DSLR with that kind of capability.
They’re not the only light field camera maker out there either, heck they’re not even the first. Raytrix, a 3D camera manufacturing company, was actually the first to market with a camera that incorporated light field technology. Looking over their product range they’ve got quite the selection of cameras available for purchase although they seem to be aimed more at the professional rather than consumer market. They even offer to convert your favourite camera into a light field one and even give you some rough specs of what your camera will be post conversion. Lytro certainly has its work cut out for them with a company like Raytrix competing against them and it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.
On a personal level this kind of technology gets me all kinds of excited. I think that’s because they’re so unexpected, I mean once auto-focus made it easy for anyone to take a picture you’d think that it was a solved problem space. But no, people find ingenious ways of using good old fashioned science to come up with solutions to problems we thought were already solved. The light field space is really going to heat up over the next couple years and it’s got my inner photographer rattling his cage, eager to play with the latest and greatest. I’m damned tempted to give into him as well as this tech is just so freakin’ cool.