When a new company called Lytro announced last week that it would soon introduce new camera technology which could well change the way we take and view photographs, we sat up and listened.
The company's light field camera, which will reach consumers later this year, uses a combination of traditional and new photographic technology to produce stunning images which blow the concept of depth of field out of the water.
The combination of a new type of sensor and an array of micro-lenses allows the camera to capture images which can effectively be refocused after they have been taken, but the limited information available on the camera, which Lytro says will be affordable, left us with lots of questions.
So, we had a chat with the company's VP of product management Kira Wampler who tried to put us in the picture.
Because the camera collects the entire light field surrounding a subject, we assumed that the file sizes would be huge, but Wampler told us otherwise. "The file sizes will be comparable to regular picture formats. Slightly larger but not by an order of magnitude," she said.
Although the images produced are obviously intended to be viewed on a monitor or TV, there will be cases where users want to print out their snaps. Wampler, who was keen to keep most of the technical details of the hardware shrouded in secrecy, would only offer, "Light field resolution provides better than HD quality today."
All of the sample images we have seen so far have used Flash Player as a viewing platform which would not be viewable on any of Apple's iOS devices, where they would be very much at home, but Wampler says iPad owners will be able to join in the fun soon.
"We're tapping into modern web technologies like Flash and HTML5 to let people share and interact with living pictures without needing to download any additional software. Our living pictures are currently interactive on some smartphones and we're working on support for the iPad," she told us.
The technology involved in the Lytro project is intriguing, and the images the prototype camera creates are undoubtedly fascinating and fun to play with, but we can't help feeling that it's all a bit of a novelty. We can see the company selling millions of cameras to happy snappers, but we wanted to know if Lytro had its eye on the pro market as well.
"Professional photographers tend to be stay on top of the latest trends in technology and we believe many of them will be interested in owning a Lytro as part of their camera kit," answered Wampler. "We have been working with several professional photographers as part of our beta program and they are having a blast exploring the new creative opportunities that the light field affords. Having said that, we think the majority of customers will be amateur photographers interested in creating high-quality memories and sharing them with friends and family."
Although the company has provided a large gallery of images taken by the current prototype camera, the company is being very cagey about the physical appearance of the hardware. Requests to have a wee peek at the prototype and questions about whether the camera would come with zoom or interchangeable lenses were met with a firm, "We aren't providing details about the camera's specs at this time."
Wampler did let slip that the Lytro camera would be capable of creating images where the entire field of vision was in sharp focus, from objects close to the lens right out to infinity (in photographic terms). She also hinted that future iterations could include video capture, saying, "Video is entirely possible with light field. It is on our long-term roadmap but will not be available in our first product."
If Lytro's brand of light field photography captures the imagination of the camera-buying public, and we suspect it will, the company is sitting on a gold mine. Licensing the technology to third party companies like Canon or Kodak could be incredibly lucrative, but Wampler is resolute that Lytro will be keeping its technology in house. "Our current strategy is to introduce this technology to people in a Lytro-branded camera that is fast, simple and magical to use.
"Lytro has fundamental patent rights to capturing and processing the light field in the way that we do. That technology has been the subject of academic research since the mid 1990s and has spawned thousands of papers. However, Lytro is the first company to take the technology out of the lab and bring it to everyday consumers."
Which brings us to the subject of cost. The company has said that the first camera would be 'affordable' and for 'everyone', but pushed on exactly how much it might sell for Wampler would only say, "The cost of the camera will be competitive with traditional consumer cameras and our goal is to make a camera that is simple enough for everyone to use."
Finally, we wondered whether the Lytro camera, with its ability to re-focus images after they have been taken, could spell the end of out-of-focus UFO and Bigfoot pictures.
"We hope so," she said.