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Lytro’s new ‘Immerge’ camera may revolutionize how virtual reality is recorded

Earlier this year, Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal announced that the company would venture into the virtual reality space, indicating that Lytro’s innovative light-field technology is well suited for capturing the type of content needed for emerging VR technologies. True to word, today Lytro is unveiling the Immerge, described as “the world’s first professional light field powered solution to provide lifelike presence in VR with six degrees of freedom (6DoF).” Translation: the world’s first lifelike, live action VR camera.

Looking more like a big floor lamp than a traditional camera, the Immerge builds on light-field technology pioneered by Lytro, and is designed for professional content creators that create VR experiences for headsets, mobile devices, and big-name media companies, such as Wevr, Vrse, and Felix and Paul Studios — three creatives Lytro is partnering with on the Immerge. The camera could possibly be used for augmented reality as well. While Lytro hasn’t revealed pricing, it’ll be priced similarly to other pro systems, Rosenthal tells us, which could be as high as $100,000 or more. Realizing it’s out of reach for many, Lytro plans to make the Immerge available on an as-needed/rental basis.

Related: Lytro opens Tokyo storefront as light-field experience center

“In order to tell the kind of stories they want to tell, the Immerge lets VR creators establish a sense of presence.”

After the Illum’s introduction, “we started having all these conversations with people who were creating professional content for virtual reality,” Rosenthal, who came from a VR background, tells us. “This important segment is seeking us out, so we decided to dig deeper. In order to tell the kind of stories they want to tell, they wanted to establish a sense of presence – give their viewers the freedom of movement in live action VR.”

In simplest of terms, a light-field camera captures all available light, in every direction. With the information, the camera, like the original Lytro and Lytro Illum, is able to produce what Lytro terms “living photos,” which can be refocused and manipulated. The Immerge builds on that technology, in a 360-degree manner: In a light-field volume, “virtual views may be generated from any point, facing any direction, with any field of view,” Lytro describes – all from a stationary position. This enables 6DoF depth-based parallax, and in a VR world, it creates the sense of presence that makes the experience feel real, and allows the viewer to do things like see behind an object. The Immerge would allow content creators to achieve that sense of presence Rosenthal mentioned – crucial to VR storytelling.

The sphere-shaped camera is composed of five layers, with each layer being a densely packed ring of sensors. Each layer is oriented a little different, Rosenthal says, and can capture at high resolutions and frame rates. Each frame also includes depth information that’s configurable for the type of production, such as 360, 180, parallax, spherical, etc. Because the Immerge is capturing the image at once, there’s no stitching involved — one of the barriers to VR when using 2D cameras — so it doesn’t break the virtual experience.

Another problem with existing VR-capture solutions, Rosenthal says, is that they require using components from different manufacturers. The Lytro Immerge won’t just be a camera, but a one-stop, “end-to-end” solution for VR creation. There will be a server for storage and processing (operated through the Lytro Immerge Control Center app), light-field editing tools, a headset/player, and streaming server.

Lytro developed a server to go along with the camera because there hasn’t been any existing product that works well, Rosenthal says. The Immerge server, which would use SSDs and Intel chipsets, can store up to one hour of footage. It not only processes light-field data, but also supports existing platforms and formats. Although the Immerge system will also incorporate components from other suppliers, Rosenthal says everything will run on proprietary Lytro software to ensure smooth operation.

Rosenthal says Lytro is also working on building editing tools for non-linear editing software (via plug-ins), first for Nuke, then Apple Final Cut and Adobe Premiere. Nuke, Rosenthal says, is what’s used in Hollywood, so you can see where Lytro is targeting the Immerge.

A prototype won’t be available until early 2016, and Lytro hasn’t announced an availability date. We also don’t know how well (or if) light-field VR will be supported by other platforms. As we’ve seen from the consumer Lytro and prosumer Illum cameras, as innovative as they are, the lack of support for viewing living photos is a hindrance. But creating great VR content is not an easy feat, so the Immerge presents an attractive solution. And, from analysts we have spoken with, Lytro’s technology is best suited for professional applications (Rosenthal tells us Lytro is committed to the consumer/prosumer market, and will continue to develop those products). Keen observers will also notice the company’s new logo, which signifies the company’s new direction. It’s early days for the Immerge, but it could be the right step Lytro needs to take with its light-field technology.