New patent suggests Sony could be working on a Lytro-like light field camera

by Felix Esser

posted Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 9:36 AM EDT

Could Sony be working on a Lytro-like light field camera of its own? That's what a newly released patent suggests. The patent, originally filed in mid-2012, describes a light field sensor with a unique pixel and microlens setup that promises to deliver much better resolution than Lytro's sensor.

For those unfamiliar with the technology, a light field sensor not only captures light in one focal plance, but basically all light rays hitting the sensor from all directions. The resulting data can then be used to focus onto any object inside the image, after the picture has been taken. Furthermore, the images even contain a small amount of 3D information, so that the perspective can be shifted a small degree.

The downside to this technology, however, is that the resolution of the resulting images is very low compared with regular 2D digital cameras, and that the full potential of the light field images can only be used on a computer, as each refocusing or perspective shift needs to be calculated from the original data collected by the light field sensor.

Sony's new sensor design now promises to solve one of the issues of current light field sensors, namely the lack of resolution. This, according to the patent description, is being achieved by using a special layout of pixels arranged in two layers and shifted in direction against each other, as well as microlenses that span multiple pixels.

At the very basic level -- as far as our understanding goes -- it appears as though Sony's light field sensor operates a bit like the sensors used for phase detection autofocus, with pixels that are "looking" in opposite directions while receiving the same incoming light from the shared microlens. (For a more detailed and in-depth explanation, our friend Roger Cicala from LensRentals has a good explanation of phase-detect AF.)

As with all patents, it is entirely unclear how much work Sony has dedicated to this project, and whether this sensor design will be employed in an actual camera any time soon. But this is exactly the direction in which light field technology has to develop if it is ever going to catch significant market share.

(via Sony Alpha Rumors, Image Sensors World)