When Ren looks up to the sky out of the corner of his eye, you know he has something cooking. Four years ago, he was working on the menu for a gourmet meal… Kinda hokey, but we thought it might be fun to share our story from the very beginning – a little primer on how to start a picture revolution.
Back when our founder Ren Ng was still a PhD candidate working on his dissertation at Stanford University, he saw the enormous potential for light field cameras. He also realized if he wanted to succeed at making a business out of his ideas, he would need a team with unique skills – plus, a triple-shot of persistence.
Ren’s Original Believers
Colvin Pitts, Tim Knight, and Alex Fishman made up the initial team of engineers Ren hired at what was then called Refocus Imaging.
Colvin came on board first. He had been Ren’s undergraduate roommate, but it was over dinner a few years later when Ren showed him the technology he had been working on. “Needless to say, I was blown away by what could be done. At the time, I was in a good position in another startup, and I had no plans to look around or leave. However, the opportunity to help develop this truly disruptive technology was more than I could pass up.”
Next up, Tim. Fresh out of Stanford, Tim has a PhD in computer science. “I was new to light fields, computer graphics, and the inner workings of digital cameras, so there was quite a learning curve for me at first. It was incredibly fun and satisfying.”
Rounding out that first crew was Alex, who came to the team with deep experience in the digital camera industry. “Honestly, I was skeptical. Then Ren showed me the actual camera prototype in action. And here I was, standing in front of a young, well-spoken entrepreneur, who breaks the laws of physics as we knew it. Right there, right in front of my eyes. I was stunned. I’ve seen cameras evolve from the expensive, bulky and low quality devices in mid-nineties to a very mature and saturated market, where innovation was nowhere to be found. The camera companies tried to differentiate themselves solely in shape and color of the camera and how many faces it would detect. Back then, like now, everyone was desperately looking for innovation.”
How did you decide to build your own camera?
Alex sums it up this way: “Breakthrough after breakthrough, the technology reached a point where we could show an amazing and engaging experience to capture and share an image. The speed our prototype would take the next picture was indescribable. I could not believe my eyes! And then sharing the pictures with my friends was another big wow. They all loved the pictures.
But the single recurring question was, ‘When can I take a picture like that?’ This was about the same time when we reached the conclusion that if you want something done right, you ought to do it yourself. And so we did – we decided to make our own Lytro branded cameras that will forever change the way everyone takes and experiences pictures.”
What were some of the hard parts?
One challenge for the initial team was to build prototypes to demonstrate to outsiders, potential investors or partners, that it really was possible to miniaturize the technology to make a consumer-friendly camera. “I broke a lot of prototypes in the early days, but some of the ideas we developed at the time have been greatly leveraged in the transition out of the lab to mass production,” shared Colvin.
Tim remembers, “We worked very closely on improving the core light field technology and theory, on image processing, and on software on many platforms, including all the demos that were used to show what we could do – web, PC, mobile, 3D, on-camera software, etc.”
What keeps these guys excited about light field cameras and building a new business from the ground up?
Tim says, “Working on light fields has been a great experience. It is a challenging and fun technical space with a lot of meaty image science within it. It’s exciting to bring this technology to the mainstream consumer.” For Alex, it’s the journey ahead. “Light field is a very powerful concept and many new discoveries are still ahead for us.” For Colvin, “What excites me the most is this is the first camera that creates an experience suitable to the digital age we live in. Photography has produced static images since its inception, and finally we are creating light field cameras that can create living, interactive pictures. It is really exciting.”