Lytro’s Light-Field Camera Gets an iPhone App

The unique camera is no longer dependent on a PC for photo sharing.

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The Lytro light-field camera–which captures information about a scene in 3D, letting you perform tricks like refocusing a picture you’ve already taken–is one of the most inventive cameras in the history of cameras. But in one respect, it’s been rather old-school: It’s made you upload all your pictures to a Mac or Windows PC via a USB cable before you could share them with the world. That’s been an act of necessity. Processing a light-field image is so computationally intensive that the camera has to do much of the required crunching on a computer rather than on the camera itself.

Starting today, however, the camera-to-computer transfer step is optional. Lytro is releasing an iPhone app that talks to its camera over Wi-Fi, grabs the photos you’ve shot and then lets you upload them via a cellular or Wi-Fi connection for sharing on Lytro’s own site, Facebook and Twitter. The company recently demoed the app for me.

Waitaminnit–Wi-Fi? It turns out that every Lytro camera sold to date has been equipped with a Wi-Fi chip, lurking inside the kaleidoscope-like case but not enabled to do anything. A firmware update, also available today, unlocks the Wi-Fi so the camera can communicate with the iPhone app. Once updated, the camera acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot, so you can connect your phone even if you don’t have a home network or public hotspot handy.

In order to make this work, Lytro had to do more than write a phone app. That image post-processing step that a Mac or PC handles with aplomb is still too much to ask of a smartphone processor. So the iPhone app uploads the unprocessed light-field information–around 5MB of data–to Lytro’s servers, where it gets processed in the cloud.

The app also joins the animated-GIF bandwagon by letting you save any Lytro picture as a GIF that shows either the refocusing effect or a jiggly perspective shift. Unlike full-blown Lytro living pictures, these ones aren’t interactive–they just play in a loop.

Here’s are GIFs of a Lytro photo of the camera and me, taken by Lytro’s Eric Cheng, in both refocus and perspective versions. (Don’t stare at either too long or you might get seasick.)

[image] Lytro focus

[image] Lytro parallax animation

And here’s the same photo in a version you can fiddle with by moving your mouse pointer (or finger) around:

Even if you don’t have a Lytro camera, the free app is worth a download if you’re intrigued by light-field photography. It lets anyone browse and manipulate new and popular images taken by Lytro photographers, and is a far more entertaining way to figure out what the technology is all about than reading an article such as this one.

At $399 for a version with 8GB of storage ($499 for 16GB), Lytro is still a relatively pricey gizmo, and it won’t replace any conventional camera you’ve got. (For mundane still images, it’s not even as good as a middling smartphone camera.) But the technology is remarkable, and the more things that you do with it–such as spontaneously sharing photos when you’re out and about rather than chained to a computer–the cooler it gets. For now, the iPhone app is the only mobile version, but Lytro’s road map includes plans for Android and iPad apps.


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