When Ren Ng unveiled his Lytro camera last year, he got the kind of response entrepreneurs dream of: breathless write-ups from the press and, more important, an invitation from Steve Jobs to demo the device at his Palo Alto home. “It was really inspiring,” says Ng, who considered Apple (AAPL) a role model while he was secretly developing the Lytro from 2006 to 2011. “He was so clear-thinking.”
The Lytro, which became available in February for $399, is the first commercially available camera to harness technology known as light field photography, Ng’s specialty as a computer science graduate student at Stanford University. Its lens actually consists of thousands of microlenses, each of which captures a slightly different slice of light. As a result, users of the harmonica-box-size Lytro can take pictures that once required a bag full of camera equipment. One shutter-snap records so much information that a user can readjust the photo after it’s been shot in various ways, such as shifting the focus from foreground to background. “The light pouring in that lens can form any picture,” Ng says.
Ng, 32, was born in Malaysia and grew up in Australia. He came to the U.S. in 1997 to attend Stanford, where he studied mathematical and computational science and dreamed of becoming a professor. While in school, he and his rock-climbing buddies became infatuated with photography: “We were doing a lot of hanging off cliffs and taking pictures to try to make one another look cool,” he says. The blurry photos from those climbing trips to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe later got Ng thinking there must be a better way to freeze time. “Catching the right fleeting moment, with the right focus, is a very difficult thing to do,” says Ng, whose research on light field photography received Stanford’s award for best Ph.D. dissertation in 2006.
Ng won’t discuss Lytro’s initial sales figures and says he’s focused on the consumer market for now. His challenge is to get more people to see the camera as an essential tool, rather than a cool but expensive toy. “From a marketing standpoint, they need to put some serious money behind it to educate the consumer,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a Silicon Valley consulting firm. The Lytro’s focus-shifting ability requires special software, and users must install an app to post photos on Facebook; Lytro operates its own site for snapshots.
“The big end-game play for this company is broadly licensing and near ubiquity in high-end smartphones,” says Peter Gotcher, chairman of Dolby Laboratories (DLB) and a Lytro board member. Ng says Hollywood studios have asked how Lytro could be applied to moviemaking. “The merging of science and art is at the core of what we do,” he says.