I've never been more impressed by something as useless as Lytro's incredible cameras. Let's hope the company can actually find something useful to do with the magic before it expires, because right now it is making workers redundant and going into survival mode.
When we first saw Lytro's "light field technology" back in 2011, I didn't even really understand it. Lytro cameras allow you to refocus photos after you have already taken them, and it works like sorcery. With a tap or a click, you can change the focus of your image from the foreground to the background. Did you focus on the lamppost instead of your fiancé? Lytro lets you fix the error long after your trip to Italy is over. The concept was so big and new that I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it.
But as we've seen a trillion times, incredible new technology and a functional prototype don't mean you'll ever see a finished product. So I was delighted when the concept actual came out, in the form of two different cameras with completely different designs.
But it wasn't a complete winner. The original Light Field Camera was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else. The rectangular box felt refreshingly new, but it lacked the refinement to really be viable as more than a novelty. And then last year, Lytro released the Illum, a much more sophisticated professional camera that employs the same light field technology. Cooler! Better! But it still fell flat. But the Illum is a big hunk of gadget that's basically worthless. No one should ever buy it because there's simply no reason to. Sure, selective focus powers are fun as extras in phones like the Galaxy S5, but not as a raison d'être.
Nobody wants a Lytro as it is. That's not just an opinion: the company is in trouble. We've confirmed a report that Lytro will make redundant 25 to 50 of its 130 workers. Meanwhile, the company's taking $50 million in funding in an effort to try to develop the business into that is awesome but also maybe worth buying. Lytro thinks maybe its tech could be useful for virtual reality, yet another technology that hasn't yet proven its utility to the mainstream consumer.
Can two halves make a whole? If Lytro has a clear vision for where its technology is going to go, it hasn't articulated it. I asked about plans for virtual reality, cameras, and other consumer products, but haven't heard back. It seems like the answer is a solid ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Still, I desperately want Lytro to succeed. Light field tech is truly inspiring in all of the ways I want technology to be inspiring. It makes you heave with squeaky sighs of astonishment. It took a room full of geniuses to make light field tech work, and now all that development is teetering on the edge of extinction.
Not every impressive technology is meant for greatness. And if Lytro can't find a great problem to solve, it may as well not exist. But sometimes, a technology is so cool that you can't help but get a little bit emotionally attached. Come on Lytro, won't you please pull through?
Image by Michael Hession