Invention adds new depth to digital field

ASHER MOSES
Last updated 14:27 26/09/2012
Lytro
ERIC CHENG

ENHANCE: Photos taken with the Lytro can be refocused by tapping the touchscreen on the device or clicking on the image on a computer.

Your first refocusable picture

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You know you've come up with a pretty spectacular invention when the tech pundits are comparing you to Steve Jobs and Jobs himself invites you to give a private demo at his house.

Dr Ren Ng, 32, born in Malaysia, raised in Australia and now based in Silicon Valley, developed a revolutionary new kind of "light-field camera" for consumers while studying at Stanford University in California.

The Lytro, which attracted US$50 million in venture capital, allows photographers to change the focus and depth of field on their pictures after they have been taken (the company's tagline is "shoot now, focus later").

It does this by capturing all of the light in the scene from all directions to create what Ng calls "living pictures". Just like a YouTube video, they can be hosted in the cloud and embedded on websites and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Viewers can fiddle with the focus of your pictures by clicking on parts of the image.

Over 400,000 light field pictures (see samples) have been shared since the Lytro camera's release in the United States six months ago. The US$499 eight-gigabyte version can capture 350 images while the US$599 16-gigabyte version can hold twice that.

LytroIn April, Ng told Businessweek that when he first unveiled the Lytro camera to breathless media last year, Jobs invited him to demo the camera at his Palo Alto home. "It was really inspiring, he was so clear-thinking," Ng said.

The Forbes journalist Adam Lashinsky's book Inside Apple provides more detail of the June 2011 meeting with Jobs. It says the pair discussed camera and product design and Ng told Jobs he'd send an email with ideas about how Lytro might be incorporated into Apple products.

What the 227-gram Lytro device - which has just two buttons and a touch screen - can do now used to require a room full of lenses and supercomputers, Lytro's vice-president of marketing, Kira Wampler, told Fairfax. Ng figured out how to miniaturise all that technology into the body of a camera.

"It's not lipstick for a giant woman," joked Wampler, who says dentists have used Lytro to take photographs of patients' mouths. Most users shoot with the device using one hand. The camera, which has an 8x optical zoom lens and a constant f/2 aperture, switches on instantly and there is no discernible shutter delay or need to wait for focus.

Ng was unavailable for interview because he is on his honeymoon - a year overdue, said Wampler. He stood down as the chief executive of Lytro in June to focus on product vision and strategy in his new role as executive chairman.

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After a decade in Australia, where he lived in Sydney and Melbourne, Ng went to Stanford and earned degrees in mathematical and computational science as well as a PhD in computer science.

His PhD thesis on light field technology earned the Association for Computing Machinery's Doctoral Dissertation Award for best computer science and engineering thesis in 2006. Ng was also awarded Stanford's Arthur Samuel Award for best PhD dissertation.

Ng always dreamed of becoming a college professor but decided to start Lytro in 2006 after realising his research could be taken out of the realms of academia and into affordable mainstream consumer products.

His brainwave came when he was trying to take a properly focused picture of a family friend's five-year-old daughter.

"With light field technology there is a huge opportunity for creativity in photography that hasn't been available in the past," Ng said in a statement. "We have seen amazing, creative and interactive pictures from camera owners and I'm looking forward to the Lytro camera being available in Australia."

Lytro cameras are also going on sale in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. When the device launched in the US six months ago, it was only available online through Lytro's site but now it will be stocked through US retailers like Amazon, Target and BestBuy.

-Fairfax Australia

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