Does the future iPhone include Lytro’s technology?

apple meets lytro

Make sure to check out our full Lytro Camera review.

If we can say anything about Steve Jobs, it’s that his death was premature. The Apple innovator had a lot of ground left to cover and was likely only getting started revolutionizing the face of consumer electronics in numerous ways and fields. A new book detailing some of this unfinished innovation, Inside Apple, reveals that Jobs had plans to impact the digital photography industry.

Not that he hasn’t already: the iPhone 4S has set the bar for smartphone cameras and bested a considerable amount of point-and-shoot competition out there. The iPhone in general has been a crucial cog in a machine that’s pulling people toward their phones’ camera versus investing in a pocket camera. We’ve talked about how this is weeding out a certain sector, and camera manufacturers are responding with connected devices—some are even taking the smartphone model and turning it on its head (a camera with a phone and apps versus a phone with apps and a camera).  

But this wasn’t all that Jobs had in mind. According to 9to5Mac, which received an advance copy of the unreleased book, the Apple founder was impressed by the recently launched Lytro camera. Months before his death, Jobs set up a meeting with Lytro CEO and inventor Ren Ng:

“The company’s CEO, Ren Ng, a brilliant computer scientist with PhD from Stanford, immediately called Jobs, who picked up the phone and quickly said, ‘if you’re free this afternoon maybe we could get together.’ Ng, who is thirty-two, hurried to Palo Alto, showed Jobs a demo of Lytro’s technology, discussed cameras and product design with him, and, at Jobs’ request, agreed to send him an email outlining three things he’d like Lytro to do with Apple.”

Ng did this, although a deal was never made official between the two companies.

From the moment Lytro debuted, it has seemed perfectly suited to smartphone photography. The touchscreen interface, lack of manual controls, and reproduction (via interactive display) all lend themselves to this medium. After getting hands-on time with the camera, we’re only more convinced: it’s incredibly simple and quick. It turns on-the-go, mindlessly-taken photos into works of art.

However, Lytro has said it isn’t interested in licensing its technology to other manufacturers. As Ng initially put it, “We can do it better.” But he also said “never say never.” Jobs was nearly obsessed with improving the iPhone’s shutter lag and allowing the camera to take in more light, and as we all know by now those two things are Lytro’s specialty. That’s enough to have us wondering if we’re going to see Lytro technology in a future iteration of the iPhone.

Jobs’ interest in reinventing the digital photography industry will come to fruition—his visions for TV and textbooks are being carried out before our eyes right now. Lytro’s current build means it’s highly unlikely that it’s destined for the iPhone 5 (the new 13-megapixel, tiny CMOS sensor from Sony stands a better chance). Lytro has a tube-like design which is crucial to its plenoptic camera mechanism. It’s not thin and slim like the iPhone 5 is purported to be, and this simply isn’t something we see Apple sacrificing. And besides, the iPhone 4S currently takes higher res photos than Lytro does.

Of course there’s the fact that until photo-sharing platforms support the software, focusing-and-refocusing Lytro pictures is impossible (although we imagine major players like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are working with Lytro on this). As it stands, this is only possible via Lytro’s own gallery.

But we’re not ready to throw the towel in on an Apple-Lytro collaboration just yet. If any company is going to integrate this groundbreaking technology into a smartphone (something that’s absolutely going to happen, and companies have already experimented with it), Apple has a lot of motivation to get there first.