Meet Lytro, the Light-Field Camera that Snaps 4D Pics

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Say hello to Lytro, a new consumer-grade camera capable of focusing on multiple points in an image with eye-popping accuracy after you’ve snapped the picture. We first heard about it this summer, and now it has a release timeframe: early next year. What, you thought “4D” was just marketing gibberish? Because 4D implies “time,” and what the heck does a camera have to do with higher dimensions anyway?

Let’s talk about light, or “light-field” technology, where a sensor captures not only the color and intensity of a scene, but also the lighting’s directional components (call it “3D light sampling”). According to Lytro, “Unlike a conventional camera that captures light in just two dimensions, the Lytro camera captures the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space.” By sampling light in three dimensions and adding a computational element, you can do all sorts of things with the image in post-processing. Like “synthetic aperture photography,” which lets you fiddle with the focus along multiple planes within a picture, “refocusing” the digitally captured image accurately after you’ve snapped it.

(MORE: Will an Innovative New Focusing Technology Change the Way We Take Pictures?)

Here’s an example that’ll serve for all. In the first image, I’ve tapped on the “butterfly plane” to bring that into sharp focus. Note also the flower the butterfly’s perched on, including its stem and leaves.

Focusing on the "butterfly-plane." Source: Lytro

In the next picture, I’ve tapped the trees in the backdrop.

Focusing on the distant "tree-plane." Source: Lytro

If you want to see more, Lytro has a bunch of images here you can fiddle with to get a better sense for all the planes you can select. The image above, for instance, supports focusing on several intermediary (between the foreground and background) objects.

Lytro’s claim to fame: It can capture some 11 million light rays (also known as “11 megarays”—take that, megapixels!). For that, you’ll pay $400 for an entry-level “Graphite” or “Electric Blue” model next year (though you can preorder it here), and you’ll get 8 GB of storage, or about 350 pictures. Step up to the $500 “Red Hot” model and you get 16 GB (about 750 pictures).

Another perk? Focusing after the picture’s taken means you don’t need an auto-focus motor, which Lytro says amounts to no shutter delay. “So, capture the moment you meant to capture not the one a shutter-delayed camera captured for you,” boasts the company.

What this adds up to: Take a look around the location you’re sitting (or standing) in, paying attention to the way your eye can focus or defocus on whatever you’re looking at. Your perspective, your choice. Light-field technology means you’ll be able to bring what your eye and brain do naturally to a totable, shutter-free camera. And according to Lytro, once you put your images up for all to see, they’ll be able to pick what they want to focus on, too. The creative, re-interpretive possibilities? We’re probably just scratching the surface.

MORE: The Top 10 Best Camera Apps for the iPhone

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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