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Lytro is sharing its futuristic camera technology with outsiders like NASA

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Lytro's first developer kit lets people make their own cameras, for a price

The grand promise of Lytro has been a camera that you can snap photos with and not worry about whether you got the focus right. In an industry defined by speed and sharpness, that's a revolutionary idea. But one of the big problems realizing that vision has been Lytro's hardware, which has been expensive and disappointing. So today, the company is opening up its technology with the Lytro Development Kit (LDK), which allows others to create their own specialty cameras. The first customers include NASA and the US Department of Defense, along with private companies in fields like energy and healthcare. That means light-field cameras in hospitals, battlefields, and even outer space.

This kit is not for garage tinkerers

The kit costs $20,000 and runs on an annual subscription, meaning you're paying that every year, something that puts it well outside the range of tinkerers. It includes a lens, sensor, processing platform, the company's software and imaging algorithms, along with a Python API. Lytro says it will update both the hardware and software to subscribers over time, so that people aren't stuck with outdated equipment or code.

According to Lytro CEO Jason Rosenthal, companies have been asking for a way to look behind the curtain for years, but Lytro didn't have the bandwidth to work on other projects. "We have a strong flood of inbound interest of people who want to leverage Light-field photography for their applications, and our response has been ‘that's interesting, but we're inventing the future of photography and that's taking up 100 percent of our time," Rosenthal says.

"That's interesting, but we're inventing the future of photography."

Lytro says it's hand-picked four outside groups to start with, but is opening it up to a larger group with the hopes that people can solve big problems with its technology. For NASA, that's putting light-field cameras into deep space, as well as on planetary rovers. The Department of Defense is using Lytro's technology to improve existing night vision systems by increasing the amount of light that they can pick up, and lighten up the hardware soldiers have to carry around on their heads.

Lytro's light-field technology allows photographers to snap a shot and choose the focus later, something that's promised to change the way people take photos. So far that technology has been limited to two of the company's own models, a first-generation camera that looked more like a flashlight, and the DSLR-like Illum. Neither has upended the camera world, though have offered a tantalizing taste at doing away with out of focus photos for the rest of time. The Illum in particular answered the question of what was possible when adding a zoom lens and higher quality components to take the idea beyond the realm of point and shoot cameras. And now, with the LDK, the company hopes to see the same kind of exploration of light-field technology into areas it wouldn't venture into. That includes things like monitoring radiation exposure in nuclear power plants, all the way down to baby monitoring, which Lytro is now all too happy to let others tinker with to find the right recipe.

"The performance characteristics of what you'd send into space are a little different from what you might put in a high-tech baby monitor," Rosenthal says.

David Pierce contributed to this report.