Well, duh: Lytro finally realizes nobody wants refocusable, low-res, overpriced cameras


posted Tuesday, April 5, 2016 at 6:53 PM EST


Five years is a mighty long time in the ever-competitive camera market. For light-field camera maker Lytro, it is doubly so: In less than five years the company has gone from a much-hyped launch to a market surrender. Current CEO Jason Rosenthal confirmed the news in a self-authored article over at tech blog Backchannel this past weekend, stating that Lytro had ceased manufacture of consumer-oriented plenoptic cameras and severed its supply chain last year, not long after admitting to a second round of painful layoffs.

At the time, an anonymous insider said to have been among those laid off told the good folks over at Resource Magazine that "It’s as though the company finally realized they shouldn’t even be selling something like the ILLUM yet. The tech is really great, but it was still a tester camera to me. Nothing more than a public sample." And as it turns out, that seems to have been precisely what happened, with Rosenthal admitting that as of January 29th, 2015 he had made a recommendation to the board that the company "dramatically cut staff to reduce costs, exit the consumer business and change direction", having "realized that we simply were not on a path to build a winning product".

Having just raised US$50 million on the back of its plans to continue in the consumer space, Rosenthal's decision was a stunning reversal of strategy. That the company had failed to make a dent in the consumer market was rather less surprising, however. Ergonomics and handling for its first-generation product was clearly little more than an afterthought, with the original Lytro camera sporting a clumsy box-shaped design which had apparently seen little input from experienced photographers. The nearly control-free experience wasn't helped by its tiny, low-resolution display, and at launch even the most basic of photographic features such as shutter speed and ISO sensitivity control were missing, as was the ability to lock exposure.

Lytro's first-generation product ignored ergonomics almost entirely. Even its own marketing materials couldn't really conceal the necessarily-clumsy handhold required.

Just two years later, the second-gen Lytro Illum improved upon the original design with a brand-new (and very aggressively-styled) body that, thanks to more traditional ergonomics, showed a whole lot more promise. Still, there were a couple of key sticking points that the company couldn't resolve even in the second generation. Perhaps most obvious of these, the output resolution -- while certainly better than the 1.2 megapixels of the initial product -- was still extremely low for the time, at just four megapixels. And yet even just to boost the resolution to this level, Lytro had to source a roomy 1"-type imager with a whopping 40-megapixel sensor resolution. The need to handle so much data meant that despite its very low output resolution, the Illum suffered from sedate performance, with burst capture limited to just three frames per second.

And that wasn't all. Thanks to the need for a powerful Snapdragon 800 processor, a large, quite possibly custom high-res image sensor and a brand-new body -- all of which had to be amortized across what for any other manufacturer would have been a relatively tiny production run -- the Lytro Illum was crippled by a spectacularly high pricetag of US$1,600 at launch. Admittedly, that initially-steep price didn't last terribly long, but its precipitous drop (by late 2015 you could pick up an Illum new for as little as $400) can't have been comforting for Lytro either, as quite likely it meant the company was burning through its capital selling its high-tech cameras at a significant loss.

The second-gen Lytro Illum had a much more traditional design, but it was still slow, low-res and -- for what it offered compared to traditional cameras -- extremely expensive.

Perhaps the most telling concern, though, was that despite its promise of a post-focus world where we would no longer be slowed down by the need to focus prior to capture, that wasn't entirely true. Lytros cameras could provide refocusable images post capture, sure, but only within limits. The camera itself still needed to set focus prior to capture, either automatically or manually, and if your intended post-capture point of focus strayed too far from that set at capture time, the result wouldn't be sharp. Nor were Lytro's correctly-focused images terribly sharp either, due to the low resolution and the limits of plenoptic technology. So at the end of the day, the product's main feature was something of an illusion, and for the most part Lytro users still relied on autofocus just like the rest of us, just not with quite the same need for accuracy.

But none of this should really have been too surprising to the company, nor to its engineering and management staff. Indeed, we pointed out many of these fundamental concerns which are simply part and parcel of a plenoptic camera way back in our very first Lytro article in late 2011. Although Rosenthal's just-published article seeks to lay a fair portion of the blame on the decline of the overall camera market, and on consumers for not recognizing the camera's advantages, at the end of the day Lytro's failure came down to something rather simpler, to our minds. The advantages of the light-field camera design -- the ability to refocus to some degree post-capture, and to produce a modest 3D effect -- simply weren't sufficient to persuade customers to live with the cameras' many drawbacks. Had they been the utterly compelling revolution that they'd been made out to be, it's doubtful that the encroachment of the camera phone upon the still camera market would have held Lytro back, and nor would its customers' preconceptions.

No doubt about it: The Lytro cameras contained some very clever tech. What they lacked, though, was a really compelling reason for most consumers to buy one instead of a more traditional camera.

But that wasn't the case. Most likely the primary drawback for most customers was the low resolution, something the company went to some lengths to conceal. Instead of acknowledging the low 1.2 and 4-megapixel resolution of its cameras, for example, it bandied about huge and rather misleading "megaray" resolutions of 11 and 40 megapixels. And when we requested cameras for review, those requests were fairly swiftly shot down, despite the fact that we go to great lengths to remain an impartial and unbiased source. Whenever we have a hard time getting a sample from a manufacturer, it’s a pretty good sign that there are some issues with it that they’d rather not have come out in our rigorous testing - and that certainly seems to have been the case with Lytro.

Sadly, Lytro's first two CEOs -- company founder Ren Ng and venture capitalist Charles Chi -- failed to see the writing on the wall, doubtless entranced by the impressive technology behind the Lytro cameras. Rosenthal's decision to end the company's consumer aspirations -- sad as it may be for the company's employees -- is the only thing that makes sense to us, as Lytro was never able to demonstrate a compelling user need for its products. With a new focus on high-end commercial cameras aimed at the burgeoning virtual reality market, perhaps the company will have more luck second time around.

(via Backchannel. Broken Lytro image made using Lytro press image and Point of Impact image courtesy of W J (Bill) Harrison / Flickr; used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0 license. Image has been modified from the original.)