“Okay, can I take it out of the box now?”

Lytro product director Colvin Pitts wants to show me the camera he’s been working on since 2007. He cautions that it’s just an early model, then gently lifts the stark, black device out of an unmarked box. It looks like a cross between a DSLR and a futuristic weapon. It’s big, with a wide round lens and a large grip, but it weighs less than 2 pounds and is perfectly comfortable in my hands. Its back face is slanted, like someone chopped off part of a larger camera to form this one. Its big, 4-inch touchscreen is glowing. I hold the camera up, point it at the black Sharpie on the table in front of me, and press the shutter. Nothing happens. I press it again. Still nothing.

“Now this is the part where I go back to that caveat at the beginning,” Pitts says. “My camera has frozen in the box.” It’s stuck on the menu screen and won’t budge. The camera, which Todd Roesler, senior director of hardware engineering, quickly swaps for a functioning model, is one of a handful of first-run production models delivered from China. It’s less than three weeks before launch, less than four months before the product codenamed Blitzen is scheduled to ship to customers, and Lytro has just gotten its first taste of how the product will look and work. There’s clearly a lot left to do. “This is the final form,” Pitts says, “but the colors and a lot of things are off. The rings are awful: we screwed up making them, so when you feel it, this is nothing like what the product will feel like.” Even now, it feels solid and polished, with just the right controls in the right places and an instantly familiar usability. The rings do feel horrible, though, loose and rubbery and too quick to turn.

A few tweaks here and there and this black brick will be Lytro’s Illum, a brand-new $1,599 camera designed to show professional photographers, and the world, the power of light-field photography. It’s the company’s second camera, the follow-up to its eponymous point-and-shoot that could refocus a photo after it was shot. The Illum does that better, and takes much better and more versatile pictures in general. But for Lytro, the real plan is only beginning to unfold. The company’s job, its mission, is to fundamentally change the way we think about images. To not just provide better, faster cameras that take beautiful pictures, but to reimagine what a picture is in the first place. That part hasn’t changed since the dawn of photography nearly two centuries ago, and Lytro believes it holds the keys to the next phase.