Earlier today a $50M investment was announced in Lytro a company that wants to fundamentally change how pictures are taken. Click here for the announcement on TechCrunch. The TechCrunch article captures my cynicism with the recent spate of VC investments worldwide when it says “This is also the company for anyone who thinks Silicon Valley has fallen into a rut of innovation-less posing. And it’s the company for anyone who complains that the Valley is more about media and marketing than brass-knuckles, hardcore technology”. Amen! It truly is great to see a hardcore technology investment and some big bets to change the landscape.
I have had one chance to look at Lytro at a K9 gathering in Silicon Valley when it was called Refocus Imaging, but at the time the grander vision which is now laid out was not clear. Apart from that I have read what ever is available on the web and find the company extremely fascinating. And given that this is in Photography/Imaging I am even more excited. Here are some initial reactions (I will be wrong about the predictions, but no harm in putting a stake in the ground):
- Cost is key. No one can tell today if Lytro is going to be successful. It has its work cut out for itself. There have been past examples of companies that have tried to fundamentally change image capture and they have not worked out as planned. The example that first comes to mind is Foveon. You can read more about it on their website but fundamentally it built technology for capturing RGB in three different sensors unlike most sensors today which capture the three colors on a single Bayer filter sensor. I have seen images from the Foveon sensors and there is no question that they are much higher quality, but the company struggled to find camera manufacturers who’d be willing to pay the extra premium and eventually Sigma incorporated them in their cameras and bought them out in 2008
- Content is king. A badly taken image of someone very important is beautiful in the eyes of the beholder. Just from that measure the incremental cost of the benefit that Foveon was willing to provide was not worth it.
- Complexity is bad for scale. With the large amount of data that is captured by the Lytro system, intuitively it doesn’t feel like the processing required can be done cost effectively on a capture device and it will require offline post-processing in the foreseeable future. George Eastman’s genius was the simple message “you press the button, we do the rest”. That simplicity is critical for scale and from the very little information I can gather (I am going to try and find out more), it feels like a major issue for Lytro in the consumer/professional markets (hopefully I am wrong). Visible light falls in the frequency range of approx 400-700nm and typical RGB filters are 3 filters over this range giving us three data points. There are capture devices that capture the information in bands of 10nm for a total of 31 data points. But none of those have made it outside research labs due to the complexity and costs in processing that data. And Lytro captures the entire Light Field!
Regardless, I for one am rooting for the team at Lytro and I am looking forward to learning more. A big kudos to the investors for taking a very bold bet.
Good luck team Lytro!