Imagine inventing an entirely new kind of car engine that runs on, say, bacon. Well, you can’t just stick your new bacon engine into your car and expect it to run perfectly. You need to engineer it, then smooth out the kinks so that your bacon car runs as well as any other. And, since you’re the inventive type, you probably want the bacon engine to allow you to do something magical – something more than just driving around like you could in a regular car.
Same story with the Lytro camera…minus the bacon.
It takes a village to bring Lytro to life, but three engineers on the Lytro image quality team are core to turning complex engineering into the simple beauty you see in living pictures.
Engineers Brian Cabral, Bennett Wilburn, and Chia-Kai Liang represent some serious brainpower in the fields of light field science and computational photography. Brian’s background includes high-level positions at NVIDIA and Silicon Graphics, with quite a few patents and papers in computer graphics and computational photography. Chia-Kai received his PhD from National Taiwan University where his thesis was about light field capturing and processing. Bennett was on his way to a PhD in circuit design at Stanford, but switched his focus (pun intended) to computer graphics and vision. For this thesis, he designed the Stanford Multiple Camera Array, a system with 100 custom video cameras that could capture light field video. Yikes, brainpower, indeed.
These guys had to figure out what to change and what to keep when building an entirely new camera around Lytro’s revolutionary new light field sensor. Oh, and do it quickly, too. While the digital camera industry had 20 years to evolve to where it is today, Brian and team had to work out the kinks in just a few years. And the ironic reality is this: the true measure of their success is that you won’t even notice their work.
How would you describe your work?
Brian: “Image quality starts with great hardware technology. Our team helps define the optics, sensors, and computational processing required to make a stunning image”.
Chia-Kai: “I developed several algorithms inside our light field engine. I’ve also developed several algorithms to make the software fast and easy to use while delivering all the light field capabilities.”
OK, a little less technical please
Chia-Kai: “The data captured by light field cameras is totally different from conventional photos. Therefore, we have to develop special software to process an incredible amount of data, yet make it easy for the user to understand how to use it. That software drives our light field engine, which is what lets you play with living pictures on your desktop, online, on your mobile phone – wherever they’re shared. And we have to keep all the functions people expect in their camera, like contrast and brightness enhancement.”
Bennett: “My role is to work on all aspects of image quality, from how we capture light fields to how we process them to create beautiful pictures.”
What have been some of the challenges of building a camera around a light field sensor?
Bennett: “We need to ensure that every camera we sell produces quality images. We are not only inventing the world’s first consumer light field camera, but also inventing all of the manufacturing processes for those cameras.”
“We’ve also had to put aside what we know about traditional photography and build a new kind of camera around the new sensor. In a conventional camera, there was always this tension between aperture and depth of field, and the photographer had to spend time adjusting settings to get the shot she wanted. Now, with light field cameras, the photographer spends her time composing the shot. A key advantage of light field cameras is that they can shoot with the lens aperture wide open and not worry about the pictures being blurry. We collect as much light as possible, then refocus later (or just make everything in focus!).”
Brian: “On nearly a daily basis we encounter new challenges, because quite simply, we’re doing things no one has ever done. Imaging light fields are full of surprises and complexities that make what we’re doing the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on.”
Aside from the fun technical challenges, what makes you excited about the Lytro camera?
Bennett: “Our camera lets us compose entirely new kinds of images. We have been trained our entire lives to take flat pictures that work with traditional cameras. Everybody ‘knows’ that if you take a picture of something small really close to the camera, the background will be blurry. Everybody ‘knows’ that to take a group photo, the group stands in a line from left to right. Well, now people can play around with breaking those rules. That’s magic to me.”
“For example, some of the most interesting living pictures in our gallery have a story with two acts, one in the foreground and a second in the background. This happens in everyday life. My friend sent me a wedding picture that had sharp bubbles in the foreground and a blurry married couple in the background. His [traditional] camera auto-focused on the wrong thing. The Lytro camera would have caught both pieces of that story.”
Chia-Kai: “This is a whole new way of taking and viewing pictures. I think people will understand how phenomenal the camera is once they see it in action. We talk about this being the next evolution of photography, and I think it really is.”
Brian: “I love the technical challenges of course. Rarely does one get work on something so compelling and technically rich. A truly once in a lifetime opportunity to be at the inception of the next generation of imaging technologies.”
“I also love what we are doing for users. We’re trying to bring the magic of light field technology to every picture people take. That means allowing the images to tell an exciting story and be alive. Every painter starts with the same paints and color palette yet some paintings are compelling and others are dull and uninspiring. We let people effortlessly create great living pictures and tell richer stories with images. Living pictures let people relive the experience and share more of that experience. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.”