It’s lights-out for Lytro? Google reportedly acquires company patents for $40 million


posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018 at 2:35 PM EDT


It's hard to believe that it's already been nearly three years since Lytro did a major pivot, bailing on their consumer camera (called the Illum) and moving onto an attempt to revolutionize virtual reality with their "Immerge" concept camera. At the time, there was some serious hype for the Immerge. Lytro's initial demonstrations of what the camera would do were fascinating, and exciting. The Immerge was going to actually make VR more, well, immersive, by allowing more than just a viewing experience from one angle, but giving a viewer free reign to move and alter their viewing angles in an environment. It's what VR is seriously missing now (fixed cameras don't do justice to how depth works), and if they could pull it off, it was going to revolutionize the space.

That was in 2015.

Three years and a handful of short, heavily-controlled demo videos later, Lytro is apparently ready to just dump its patents on someone else.

According to TechCrunch, multiple sources have informed them that Lytro will be selling off its assets to Google for a paltry $40 million (not a lot in patent sales for high tech), while some of those sources actually quote it to be much lower when they were offering their patents to Facebook and Apple: just $25 million.

Lytro raised over $200 million in funding, with a valuation of $360 million after its most recent round in 2017 (which is not much) and piles that on top of the losses it took during the original Lytro Light Field Camera launch and the failure of the Illum. To receive just $40 million for its 59 patents would be a huge disappointment to those who invested in the company. Based on the reports, it doesn't sound like many of the current Lytro employees, if any, are part of the Google acquisition with some already receiving severance packages and others just straight up leaving the company.

Nearly three years ago, Lytro released the above "hype" video on the new technology that would be found in the Immerge (you'll have to click to Vimeo to watch it; for some reason Lytro doesn't want it embedded). I recall having conversations with videographers in the industry who ridiculed my skepticism of the device, and who forgave Lytro for never really showing anything in real time with the camera they were supposedly creating. Years later, I've still never seen the Immerge in any capacity outside of Lytro's heavily controlled PR hype machine, and hearing about their sale to Google only confirms my original beliefs: this was all vaporware.

It's of course possible that they had some kind of working device that allowed them to do slightly more than other VR applications, as shown in a more recent video below.

I say slightly because this is far, far less than they told us they could do in their original marketing. Slight head movements from a seated location? Ok, cool, but that's not what I was promised.

Lytro also hyped their "cinema camera" as the "ultimate creative tool," but that also never left the safety of Lytro's test environments. Remember this video?

The idea was that the camera would use points of focus rather than color as a way to clip subjects from a background. It's a really slick idea, but as I said we never saw a real product make it out in the world. You can't blame me for being skeptical of this, I mean look at these specs: 755 RAW Megapixels, up to 300 fps, up to 16 stops of Dynamic Range, and Integrated High Res Active Scanning Systems? That is a lot to deliver on. They did not.

Hype after hype after hype... their Vimeo channel is full of stuff like this, yet we haven't seen a product in the hands of a neurtral party. Since they're reportedly selling off their patents, it's pretty clear why: the tech was never really where they wanted you to believe it was. 

It's unclear what Google is going to do with the patents, they may just like collecting them to prevent competitors from doing the same. The extremely low price of these patents only furthers the argument that Lytro just doesn't have a lot to offer that is of value. Maybe now they can finally just go away. I'm tired of hearing hype from a company that only repeatedly failed to deliver on what they promised. Over, and over, and over again. Sure, you can argue that they actually put two products to public market, succeeding in producing a product twice, but those products were well below expectations and fizzled out quickly. They revolutionized nothing, and only disappointed those who believed in them.

People like me.