Lytro zooms into Asia with 'focus cameras'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am


Zoom into the board of Lytro, a digital-camera start-up whose technology allows people to focus pictures after they take them, and you will find Asian names at the helm.

Lytro founder and CEO Ren Ng is Vietnamese, as is chairman Charles Chi, while director of photography Eric Cheng is Taiwanese-American.

Ng's family moved from Malaysia to Australia when he was a child and now lives in the United States. Chi left for Canada when he was two. But while the Lytro bigwigs left Asia years ago, they have revisited the region of their roots.

Chi and Cheng, in particular, came to Hong Kong in October for Lytro's first live demo at the AsiaD conference, touching base with one of Asia's biggest digital-camera markets. According to market research group GfK Asia, Hong Kong and Korea had combined sales of US$1.35 billion in 2010, a year that saw double-digit growth in camera sales in Asia.

While Lytro can appeal to professionals, a Lytro spokesman said it believed 'the majority of Lytro customers will be amateur photographers'. This makes Hong Kong an ideal market for the company, even though international shipping dates of their products are still unknown.

But in the US, Lytro cameras will be available online starting this year at US$399 each.

Lytro likes game-changers rather than following rules. Ng, for instance, quietly earned a Stanford degree in maths and computational science before completing his computer science PhD there. Then he surprised everyone with a PhD thesis that threw out conventional knowledge of digital photography, which was beset by focus issues and shutter delays, and solved the focus problem.

In 2006, using a sensor called a microlens array, Ng for the first time placed multiple lenses in a small space, allowing light to be captured simultaneously from different angles, creating a light field.

While light-field photography had been around for 15 years, Ng reduced the technology - once requiring a room full of cameras - to pocket-sized, consumer-friendly form.

Traditional camera sensors record all the light in a shot as one single source of light - with shadows and bright spots, blurs or crispness. It is set like a painting. But with the Lytro light-field camera, the colour, direction and intensity of each light ray is captured for what Lytro deems a 'living picture'.

Photos taken with a full light field are inherently 3-D and special software applied to them will allow viewers to shift focus for the photos.

Yet all the extra light information comes with some caveats. Lytro's photo file sizes are multiple times larger than traditional photos of similar quality. To change focus, the photos are set in a unique format called LFP (light field picture), which can only be shared on the internet using Lytro's website.

Still, Lytro brings us one step closer to the moving images of Harry Potter's world, thanks to the work of researchers who - at least at one point - hailed from this region.