Lytro Runs A Sneak Play – New Features Without a New Camera

Alan Bullock
Jun 27, 2013

In June 2011, Lytro unveiled a revolutionary camera that tossed much of what we knew about depth-of-field out the window. Using a new “light field” sensor, the camera captures color, intensity, and direction of light rays in its field of view. The result is pictures that can be “refocused” at any time after capture.

Two years later, Lytro’s current cameras include several features that were not available at launch. Big deal, right? In this industry, vendors announce new cameras two or three times a year. Most consumers barely get their new camera out of the box before it has been made obsolete by a new model with new bells, new whistles, and, too often, more megapixels.

Lytro has broken that mold. Except for some new color options, today’s Lytro camera hardware is the same as in 2011. New features have all been software-enabled, but they are not trivial. The first major update was new firmware that added manual exposure controls such as shutter speed, ISO setting, auto-exposure lock, and a neutral density filter. Soon after, the Lytro Desktop software was updated to include two new creative post-processing capabilities — perspective shift and creative filters.

The icing on the cake (so far, anyway) came last week, as the company introduced a mobile app that lets users view photos from their Lytro camera, including refocusing and perspective shift, on their iOS device. (An Android version is reportedly in the works.) Photos can be uploaded to Lytro.com and shared via Facebook, Twitter, or a link sent by iMessage or SMS. They can also be exported as animated .GIF files.

Now, InfoTrends has long been an advocate of connected cameras. We’ve been telling manufacturers for years that they need to add Wi-Fi connectivity to compete with the instant sharing capabilities of smartphones. Our research shows that there is considerable interest in connected cameras, and that the ability to transfer photos and videos to a mobile device would, for many, actually cause them to use their cameras more. But Lytro never appears on any of our lists of Wi-Fi enabled cameras — until now. Turns out, there was a Wi-Fi chip in there all along — it just wasn’t turned on. A software update last week enabled the hidden feature and just like that — a connected camera!

Admittedly, I sound like a bit of a Lytro fanboy here. Do I own a Lytro camera? No. Would I like one? Definitely. Truth be told, I’ve only held one in my hands on a couple of occasions, one of which was in a short meeting at the company’s offices more than six months ago.

This is more about a product roadmap that was not controlled by hardware engineers, bill-of-materials budgets, and managing inventory of discontinued SKUs. The company deserves kudos for planning ahead (building the Wi-Fi chip into the camera with no immediate benefit), patience (sitting on it for nearly two years), and unleashing a nice set of features. Certainly, these are features that current owners will enjoy, but they will also do a lot to pull others into the experience that is viewing a Lytro photo — something that was far more difficult when the cameras had to be tethered to a desktop computer.

It’s also about giving new features to customers without forcing them to buy a new camera. Camera manufacturers will typically only issue software updates to fix bugs, and even then, only for a limited time, before moving on to newer models. As a result, consumers are drawn to other devices such as smartphones, on which new features are enabled frequently, usually by app developers taking advantage of open operating systems. Margins may not support a software-based product roadmap for all models, but it’s worth considering for higher-priced point & shoot and interchangeable lens cameras.

Granted, with virtually no direct competition, Lytro has had some breathing room to move at its own pace — a luxury not available to most mainstream vendors. And, according to some recent media reports, that may be about to change. But for now, Lytro continues doing its part to refocus the camera market.

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InfoTrends’ Connected Imaging Trends vendor advisory service covers devices, services, and technologies that enable consumers to view, share, store, and protect their growing collections of personal photo and video files, virtually any time and anywhere. For more information, please contact Matt O’Keefe at +1-781-616-2115 or matt.okeefe@infotrends.com.

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