Will Lytro Ever Go Mainstream?
Lytro garnered a lot of interest around its idea of light-field photography when it revealed the novel technology in 2011. The concept of taking photos, then refocusing them around any object in the picture after the fact, was fascinating to say the least, leading some to speculate Lytro could end up redefining digital photography as we know it.
The company soon delivered on its promise to bring the technology to market via its own camera. The Lytro debuted in the winter of 2012. Shaped like an enlarged stick of butter, it did exactly as advertised — taking photos that viewers could refocus just by clicking on them. Even better, it was simple and consumer-friendly, and the pics were shareable on Facebook and Twitter.
However, the camera was criticized for its low resolution and lack of manual controls (which have since been added via a software update). Beyond specs, though, many dismiss the Lytro’s light-field technology — which, unlike regular cameras, measures the direction of light in addition to color and intensity — as a mere trick. While people will ooh and aah at a demo, critics say there are few actual photos where light-field effects really matter, so the idea will never go mainstream.
“This camera is not something that we’re building that’s going to take over the whole camera market on the first product,” says Lytro founder and CEO Ren Ng. “The camera has been a huge success for the company.”
Lytro by the Numbers
While Ng won’t say how many cameras the company has sold, Lytro recently revealed that 400,000 photos had been shared online (shared Lytro pics are hosted on the company’s servers, so they’re easy to measure). The company’s Facebook page — the primary online hub for Lytro users — has about 55,000 fans, though Liking the page doesn’t necessarily translate into camera ownership.
Ng won’t say if the company is profitable either, merely reiterating that Lytro is “well capitalized.” Lytro’s $50 million in venture funding was well publicized in 2011.
While 400,000 photos is large by some measures, it’s negligible compared to the total amount of photos shared on Facebook, which gets more photos every day from Instagram alone. And it’s apples to oranges, but Eye-Fi — the company that makes SD cards that can upload photos wirelessly — has had 500 million photos move through its servers since it was founded in 2005 (after this story was published, Eye-Fi told us the number of photos it processed during its first year was 3.5 million).
Of course, Eye-Fi and Facebook have been around for the better part of a decade, and Lytro only started selling its product this year. However, it gives some idea of the bar Lytro needs to cross for the company to hit the big time.
Ng adds Lytro photos have been viewed “hundreds of millions” of times, and that the company has struggled to keep up with demand for the camera. Although customers can now order a Lytro and have it shipped the next day, that wasn’t the case for the first six months of its release.
“We had way more demand than we were expecting,” says Kira Wampler, Lytro’s vice president of marketing. “We only got to two-day ship in August. We also expanded distribution in the U.S.”
The Lytro Customer
So who is buying the Lytro? Ng and Wampler say it’s a cross-section of people united by the common thread of wanting to share creative work online. It cuts across all skill levels, since the camera wasn’t designed to appeal to pros, who generally regard the Lytro as a curious toy.
“[Pro photographers] found it really intriguing more as an idea than as a real tool,” says Miriam Leuchter, editor of Popular Photography. “In the photography community it was sort of like, ‘Hm, look at that,’ and that was the end of the discussion.”
You can peek into Lytro’s customer base by looking at the photos shared on the company’s Facebook page, but that’s about the only place you can go for insight into the camera’s audience. Anecdotally, no one on Mashable‘s staff has never seen a Lytro camera “in the wild,” and neither has Leuchter. As the Tech Editor of Mashable (with many tech-savvy friends), I haven’t so much as seen a single Lytro photo appear in my Facebook news feed.
Nonetheless, the interest in Lytro is sizable. Mashable‘s Lytro coverage tends to attract a large audience, and I’ve had at least one friend ask me to take a Lytro picture of them for their Facebook profile pic.
You can’t actually use a Lytro photo in that way (it must be embedded), which shows another threshold the technology would need to cross to truly “arrive.” When a major service (such as Facebook or Photoshop) integrates compatibility with Lytro’s light-field photos — beyond simple embeds — then we’ll know it’s a hit.
“It’d be great if it was integrated and every picture could become a living picture,” says Ng. “But just the fact that you can get it integrated natively in these different feeds in a way that doesn’t require you to download any software — that’s a hugely disruptive thing. Even five years ago, we wouldn’t be able to launch the company in a fashion where most people can see the pictures.”
Light Field, Light Appeal?
Until living photos become a phenomenon, the company will keep rolling out new features such as today’s announcement of perspective shift. Ng says the new feature has excited some users even more than refocusing, and that it, along with the next-day availability of the camera, has the potential to grow its customer base even faster than before.
Fast enough, though? And does its success have a ceiling? Even Leuchter thinks it would be a shame if light-field photography was simply dismissed as a niche field and didn’t realize its full potential.
“I think there are enormous possibilities in it,” she says. “What we first saw was a fairly simple and almost toy-like application, but there are possibilities for tremendous imaging power inherent in this. It’s just going to take a lot of technological innovation on both the hardware and the software side.”
What do you think of Lytro and the potential of light-field photography? Will the company succeed and thrive, or do its living pictures have limited appeal? Have your say in the comments.
Photos by Mashable