I begin with a remark made by my friend, Mr Bong, who said, “much as I like to think my photographic skills are improving but alas not! I could certainly do with one of these cameras.”
Mr Bong shared an article from The Economist, titled Cameras Got Cleverer on my Facebook Wall. He was referring to a report about Lytro Light field Camera being developed, produced and quite possibly ready to be introduced to consumers this year. On reading this, I jogged my memory back to 2008 when I viewed a Youtube video showing Adobe’s light field camera, or the plenoptic camera as it is called. I can’t remember where I’d kept the original video, so I googled. It appears somebody else was also working on the same idea. That’s Ren Ng, Ph.D.
Ren Ng, a post-graduate researcher from Stanford University has garnered in excess of US$50 million and started a new venture company called Lytro to produce point-and-shoot plenoptic camera to the masses. If everything goes according to plans, it would be in the market this year, leveraged as a competitively priced entry level light field camera. This camera is poised to change the way we take, edit, experience and appreciate photographs. Why? Because you can shoot first, and then refocus later. Huh? Yes. Because of light field technology.
What is a light field? “In physics, a light field describes the direction of all the idealised light rays passing through an area. Dr Levoy’s and Dr Hanrahan’s seminal paper described a new way to model this field mathemati- cally. Now, 15 years later, Dr Ren Ng, trained by Dr Levoy at Stanford University, has worked out how to implement the technique using off- the-shelf chips.” 
Like Adobe’s prototype light field camera introduced on February 25, 2008 , Dr Ng’s camera also uses an array of several hundred thousand micro-lenses placed between an ordinary camera lens and imaging sensor [4,5]. When light enters the main lens, it is intercepted by each of these micro-lenses which then strikes the image chip. Each microlens is said to function as a kind of superpixel, capable of recording an image’s colour, saturation intensity and direction . According to the report, it is possible to calculate the light path between the microlens and the sensor. In doing so the precise direction of a light ray can be reconstructed. What this means is that users of this type of camera can just point-and-shoot, and using computational photography software, focus on any part of the image later.  Stunning!
Here is a sample image from Lytro. The photo on the left shows focus pin-sharp on the cat’s eye in the foreground. By “refocussing”, or changing depth of field, the cat in the rear comes into sharp focus, from the same captured image.
So, let’s return to Adobe’s light field camera. From an Adobe Technical Report 2009, , two researchers, Todor Georgiev and Andrew Lumsdaine show that it is possible to use a light field camera to capture an image. and then use specially coded algorithm to computationally juxtaposed to yield a super resolution 9 times better than an image captured conventionally (pictured right)
See how a portion of the cyclist is captured by the micro-lenses. The image on the left shows a portion of the cyclist. The image on the right shows the extreme enlargement of the area delineated by the green box. In the extreme close-up, not only are the individual images in focus, but they also show repeated images of the cyclist captured by each micro lens.
Both Adobe and Lytro have demonstrated the uniqueness of imagery captured using light field cameras. While there is no news from Adobe regarding future development of its “plenoptic” camera system, Lytro is said to market its first point-and-shoot light field camera end of the year .
It remains to be seen how well received this type of imaging device would be. Will Lytro beat Adobe to the market? The future of photography is going to be definitely exciting.
1. “Cameras Got Cleverer”, The Economist, Technology Quarterly, 3 September 2011, Q3 2011.
3. Todor Georgiev and Andrew Lumsdaine, “Super-resolution with Plenoptic Camera 2.0“, Adobe Technical Report, August 2009.
4. op cit, “Cameras Got Cleverer” and “Super-resolution with Plenoptic Camera 2.0”
6. Sharif Sakr, “Lytro’s light field camera captures ‘unprecedented’ images, lets you choose focus later,” Engadget, 22 June 2011
7. op cit., “Cameras Got Cleverer.”
9. op. cit., “Super-resolution with Plenoptic Camera 2.0”
10. op. cit., “Cameras Got Cleverer.”
11. Watch Adobe Light Field Camera on VodPod, dated 25 Feb 2008
12. Watch Lytro Light Field Camera on Youtube, dated 22 June 2011
13. Lytro website: http://www.lytro.com/cameras
14. Watch Lytro’s newer video demonstrating light field camera concept on AllthingsD
15. Lytro Picture Gallery [Click any part of the image to refocus. Double click to zoom]