What if you had a camera whose images could be re-focused minutes, days or years after the shot, or viewed in 3D? That's what a company called Lytro promises you'll get in these tiny little boxes for just $399. This is a Lytro light field camera, and its anodized aluminum and silicone skin hides an engineering feat -- a proprietary sensor that the firm claims can capture 11 million rays of light instantly. That's paired to an 8x zoom lens with an f/2 aperture and eleven elements, plus a glass touchscreen around back, which allows you to touch any portion of the image to refocus on that part of the scene.
Founder Ren Ng's calling the results "living pictures," and you won't need a camera to see the results, as the firm's also building a software ecosystem around the idea -- starting with pictures that you can embed on Facebook and have your friends and relatives manipulate those very same images from their browser window. This sort of plenoptic camera isn't a new concept, but previous demonstrations have required giant arrays of distinct cameras to create, while Lytro's device is a tube you can hold in a single hand -- and you'll be able to pre-order this one at 1PM PT today from lytro.com for $399. That buys you a graphite grey or shiny blue case with 8GB of storage, enough to hold 350 light field pictures, while a 16GB model comes in red for $499. They'll ship in 2012. There are plenty of unanswered questions here, like how long the internal battery lasts, or how the camera manages blur... but we're about to test one out for ourselves, and we'll let you know shortly just how well it works!
Update: We just gave Lytro's prototype camera a try, and it's not universally amazing -- the viewfinder LCD is tiny and of fairly poor quality, and we found it difficult to frame images with the limited field of view and completely square aspect ratio. Also, the images themselves come out at fairly low resolution, and you do have to hold the camera moderately steady to avoid adding blur. All that said, the basic concept works, it works well, it's fun, and it's like nothing else on the market. We seriously can't wait to get our hands on a final unit, and we're already dreaming what this could be like in a high-resolution DSLR-sized package. Hands-on gallery and two videos below!
Update 2: Lytro tells us that the camera should be able to shoot approximately 400 images on a charge. Also, the company just confirmed that the PC software will only support Mac OS X at launch.
Dieter Bohn contributed heavily to this report.