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.)
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.