New camera changes focus on pictures


Imagine refocusing a picture years after you took it. Want something in focus? Just touch it, with a new kind of picture called a "light field" image, taken with a new kind of camera.

The camera is deceptively simple to use. The only buttons are one to turn it on, and one to snap a picture. The rest is controlled with a touchscreen: Flipping through your collection, deleting, adding a star to the good ones. It has an honest-to-goodness optical zoom that also responds to a simple touch.

Its developer is Lytro, a fast-growing company in Mountain View. To the people there, it's not business -- it's personal.

"Because I do not have to focus before I take the shot," Kira Wampler of Lytro explains, "I have an instant shutter. I'm able to quickly capture these special moments. My daughter with (a) funny, grumpy face."

The secret is in the software that calculates the distance to every point of light.

You might be asking yourself, "Why didn't they think of this before?" Well, they did, but until now, it took a supercomputer to do all the processing.

Today, the computer is inside the camera -- along with a sophisticated lens and a light-sensitive chip to record the image.

Every point in every scene sends out a million rays of light. A conventional camera records them as a single ray, converging on a single pixel on the surface of the imager. That's called "focus."

A light field camera overlays that imager with a million micro-lenses -- each capturing the picture at a different focal length and focus. A computer in the camera corrects for aberrations -- no need to process anything with your own computer.

You don't need special software to refocus, either. Embedded in every picture is a player that travels with it on the Internet. Don't let the camera size fool you. The images are better than those at 10.5 megapixels taken with a conventional camera.

Lytro is accepting orders online, but deliveries won't begin for a few months. The camera starts at $399, depending on how much memory you want inside it.



Gallery of refocus-able light field images

The scientific explanation behind the technology (PDF)/a>