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Lytro CEO channels Elon Musk, promises ‘breakthrough’ products akin to a Tesla S

Lytro Electric Blue

As a startup builds up its business, it will most likely go through a few rounds of growing pains. Lytro, the company behind the breakthrough light-field camera, is exhibiting some of those teething issues. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the company has laid off “a ‘small’ number of employees in areas like operations and shipping” earlier this year. No employees in product and engineering were affected. Despite the news, Lytro is promising new “breakthrough” products in 2014.

The Chronicle learned of the layoffs when it spoke with new CEO Jason Rosenthal, who took over the seven-year-old company from founder and Executive Chairman Ren Ng, who stepped down as CEO this past June to work on product development. The company hasn’t grown its staff considerably (it has 85 employees) and there haven’t been any major product announcements since the Lytro camera started shipping last year, aside from a few firmware updates. Despite securing a $50 million investment from venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz, industry sources say the camera isn’t selling well, either, according to the Chronicle.

But Rosenthal says the company is working on new “breakthrough” products that will debut in 2014. Rosenthal, who has worked at Netscape, AOL, Ning, and investment firm Silver Lake, is bringing his business expertise to spearhead the company. “Rosenthal batted away any suggestions of broader financial issues at Lytro and stressed that the company’s upcoming products have better odds of whetting consumer appetites,” according to the Chronicle. Rosenthal said the long-term vision is to become “the new software and hardware stack for everything with a lens and sensor. That’s still cameras, video cameras, medical and industrial imaging, smartphones, the entire imaging ecosystem.”

“We’re working on what we think will be our Model S,” Rosenthal told the Chronicle, in reference to the all-electric vehicle. Rosenthal compared the first-gen Lytro camera to the Tesla Roadster, which had limited production in order to have its kinks worked out before building a full-production model.  “We have a packed product roadmap for next year, we’ll introduce multiple what I think are just breakthrough products. I’m super excited and the world will be as well.”

But exactly what those products are remains a secret, although it will be imaging related and beyond consumer-oriented products, at various price points. A partner at Andreessen Horowitz hinted that the product would include pro-level features. “Rosenthal said they’ll be able to deliver their advances relatively cheaply, because they’re making strides in software that were once only possible with expensive hardware,” the Chronicle wrote. 

As we recently said, despite the accolades the Lytro has garnered – including our “camera of the year” – we also thought the camera has become somewhat of a one-trick pony, leading us to wonder what Lytro could deliver next. Technologies similar to Lytro’s are purportedly making their way into smartphones soon, which is a potential problem as Lytro’s camera is too expensive for the general consumer, making cheaper smartphones more attractive. If Lytro is to become a success – whether in the consumer or enterprise space – it’d need to deliver some gangbuster products soon, but 2014 could prove too late.

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Les Shu
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I am formerly a senior editor at Digital Trends. I bring with me more than a decade of tech and lifestyle journalism…
Lytro turns on Wi-Fi, gets social with new animated GIF-creating iOS app

Earlier this month, Eric Cheng, Lytro’s director of photography, tweeted a photo taken with a Lytro camera. Lytro makes a light-field camera that captures photos you can refocus later, but there was something noticeably different about this particular photo: it had animation. Cheng also posted similar animated GIFs to his Google+ page. Naturally commenters wanted to know how it was done. Well, today, Lytro lets everyone in on the fun with a new iOS app that lets you create animated GIFs. And if you own a Lytro, you’ll need to upgrade the firmware to enable the built-in Wi-Fi, a feature that was never mentioned before.
An example of a Lytro perspective shift animated GIF.
The app creates two types of animated GIFs: refocus animation and perspective shift animation. Refocus animation continuously changes the focusing between the foreground and background subjects – the Lytro camera’s magic trick. Perspective shift, a feature Lytro added to its desktop software in the previous firmware update, lets the user move around the photo to create a 3D effect; the new iOS app can create a continuous animation of that effect. While you can add these effects to all your photos (older photos, however, must be processed for perspective shift on the desktop app, which is a painfully slow process), the ones that are most effective are the ones you’ve put some initial planning into it (see Cheng’s photos for what we mean). So far, the only way to create these animated GIFs is via the iOS app, as the feature isn’t anywhere to be found on the desktop app.
An example of a Lytro refocus animated GIF.
The app, which is a free download (your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch needs to be on iOS 6.1, however), pairs with the Lytro camera the same way Wi-Fi-enabled digital cameras pair with smartphones. The Lytro camera connects directly to an iOS device via Wi-Fi, where you’ll be able to view and share photos on your Lytro account. From the app you can then upload the shared images to Twitter and Facebook, e-mail them, or turn them into an animated GIF. You can also view photos from other Lytro users. As a social experience, the app is fairly basic in what you can do, but the app is very stable and easy to use (although if you’re on a Wi-Fi-only iPad or iPod Touch, you’ll need to hop in and out of the Wi-Fi connection to switch between the camera and your Internet connection).
Although the Lytro camera’s ability to refocus is a cool trick, it leaves users wanting more. As the firmware updates demonstrate, there’s growth potential for this camera beyond refocusing – it’s just that they’re slowly being rolled out. But it’s good to know that Lytro is trying to update the product as it goes.

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The democratization of digital photography continues with latest Lytro update
lytro update light field camera

Today, Lytro has announced that its plenoptic consumer camera will now offer manual controls to its user. The camera, introduced this past summer, has been a controversial device for photographers: While it’s putting light field photography into users’ hands – something that’s never been done before – its first iteration status and lack of shutter and exposure control has led plenty of critics to call it a novelty.
For those who’ve missed the Lytro hype, the best way to describe the device is to talk about its focus-and-refocus feature. Lytro uses its megaray technology and untraditional build to take all of the light coming from every direction of the scene you’re shooting, which later means you can physically click on the photo when you’re viewing it via Lytro software to change the point of focus. The effect is riveting and sort of magical, but of course photography purists are going to point out that the inability to control settings means quality is sacrificed.
Now, Lytro is addressing those concerns with its firmware update. “Manual controls give Lytro photographers the opportunity to take control of the exposure in a scene,” Lytro director of photography Eric Cheng says. “We introduced these feature as a result of feedback from our most creative camera owners, who are capturing things like subjects in motion or experimenting with artistic styles like light painting. With manual controls, they now have more flexibility as they push the boundaries of the light field.”
Users will now be able to adjust shutter speed (max is 8 seconds, minimum is 1/250 of second), ISO (range is 80-3200), apply the neutral density filter in bright settings, as well as the auto exposure lock.
Lytro provided us with some examples of images using these settings, and when compared with the samples we took when testing the camera (the top two photos are with the old version, the bottom two with the updated firmware), you can see there’s an obvious improvement – just don’t expect the results to rival those of Micro Four Thirds or DSLRs.

In addition to the firmware update, Lytro has also announced its added two new colors to the lineup: Moxie pink and seaglass.

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Lytro heads into production, readies for debut

Make sure to check out our full Lytro Camera review.
All’s been quiet on the Lytro front since the conceptual digital photography company announced itself back in June. After quite the headline-stealing debut, we’ve been waiting with bated breath for any word on the focus-and-refocus manufacturer.
Finally, a little news about where things are heading for the revolutionary camera. According to AllThingsD, Lytro has been busy getting units into elite professionals’ hands for trial runs, doing their own photo shoots, and working on the hardware. Units are slated to go on sale later this year and should be announced within the next few months.
“Engineering and operations teams are currently conducting all of the typical activities you undertake to bring a product to market, such as manufacturing tests, certifications, and supply chain preparation,” a Lytro representative tells us.
While scoring a coveted Lytro camera for testing is anything but easy, you can sign up on the company’s site and cross your fingers.
One thing to keep in mind: Yes, Lytro’s new technology is amazing but say goodbye to JPG, GIF, PNG file types. The camera’s refocusing capability means it will also introduce a different platform to view the images it produces. Of course the real questions we can't wait to have answered are what will it look like and how much will it cost?

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