Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Lytro: the amazing new perspective on photography

(Click on the images)

  • Ren Ng is the Malaysian-born inventor of the Lytro camera
  • Ng hopes the hand-held digital device will come to revolutionize how people take pictures
  • Camera enables users to alter a picture's focus and perspective after image has been captured

(CNN) -- What do Steve Jobs, Hollywood film studios and Silicon Valley venture capitalists have in common?

All have, at one stage or another, sought out Ren Ng -- the Malaysian-born inventor of Lytro, a hand-held digital camera that aims to revolutionize photography and simplify the art of taking pictures.

Lytro works by employing a micro-lens array to capture the entire light field -- every ray of light traveling in all directions through a scene, which regular cameras cannot do -- before focusing the information captured onto a sensor.

Collecting all light data enables users to alter a picture's focus and perspective long after the image has been taken.

The technology caught the eye of the late Steve Jobs, who invited Ng to his Palo Alto home to demo the device, and attracted a cool $50 million start-up cash from eager venture capitalists.

I think it's a very compelling idea that you'll never take a bad picture any more but that's not what this camera is about
Ren Ng

See also: A light bulb moment for the wireless web

The camera launched in the U.S. last February before Lytro announced it was expanding into Asia and Australia in October.

Ng took time out to speak to CNN about his invention and how he transformed Lytro from a Stanford University PhD project into a potentially lucrative commercial reality.

CNN: What makes Lytro such a revolutionary invention?

Ren Ng: It lets you focus pictures after you take the shot and this really enriches your creativity as it makes a totally new kind of interactive picture.

It also lets you share that creativity online with your friends and family ... (and) can be embedded fully into social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

CNN: What was the inspiration for the Lytro camera?

Ren Ng is the 32-year-old inventor of the Lytro camera, a device he hopes will come to revolutionize the field of digital photography. Ren Ng is the 32-year-old inventor of the Lytro camera, a device he hopes will come to revolutionize the field of digital photography.
Ren Ng, inventor of Lytro

RN: I am a very keen photographer. I have enjoyed taking pictures since I was a kid with my family, but I became more serious about it at university.

From the academic side, I was studying pictures from a computer graphic stance and the theory of the light field. On the personal side, I was rock climbing and taking pictures with my friends. We took all sorts of portrait and action pictures and I was thinking at the time that these are inherently difficult to focus correctly.

That made me ask questions about the computer graphics of the light field that I was studying academically, and if those could be applied in commercial photography.

CNN: How long has the process of invention to market taken you?

The idea to try and commercialize came very late and it is something that is not very natural to me being an academic
Ren Ng

RN: I started the company in 2006 and I had been working on research for about three years before that.

Personally, I've been working on it for about nine years. We've gone through about three rounds of venture capital with some of the best venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. In total we've raised approximately $50 million in investment.

See also: How the Rubik's Cube took over the world

CNN: You made a prototype when researching your dissertation, did you realize you were sitting on a multi-million dollar invention?

RN: The idea to try and commercialize came very late and it is something that is not very natural to me being an academic.

There were two eureka moments during the PhD, if you will. The first was taking these equations (about the optical architecture of the light field) and starting to simulate them on a computer.

The second was very similar except it was more physical. We built a prototype camera where you could take a picture using the software developed during the simulation stage.

CNN: Does Lytro make skilled photography redundant?

RN: I think it's a very compelling idea that you'll never take a bad picture anymore, but that's not what this camera is about.

It's not a magical device ... but it does let you take pictures very rapidly and without having to worry about things like focus, like you do with a regular camera.

Basically, with a regular camera you have to take time or allow the camera to focus before you take the shot.

Because we can allow you to focus after you've taken the picture by capturing the full light field, we can trigger the shutter instantly without delay. And people find that very helpful.

CNN: What was it like being invited to meet Steve Jobs?

RN: It really was an incredible experience. Not too many people have the chance to do that. Like many people out there I'm inspired by the level of attention to detail, design and execution of Apple products.

I started the company in 2006 and I had been working on research for about three years before that
Ren Ng

Getting to meet him was exciting as he's a very inspiring person. We discussed a range of topics and it was terrific to [meet] like that in a one-on-one setting.

See also: Teach young people to be innovative

CNN: Has it been easy combining the business and science side of things?

RN: It was the hardest thing I've ever done, for sure. Entrepreneurship is a very full body immersion into a very diverse skill set. Being able to execute technically through to a vision of a product that can be compelled to people and then being able to communicate that.

I had to develop a lot of these very different aspects, but more importantly I have also met a lot of people who have joined Lytro, invested in Lytro or become partners with Lytro that have helped us to grow this vision of bringing computational photography to consumer cameras.

CNN: From your experiences with Lytro, is commercial savvy something that modern inventors require just as much as a scientific or creative mind?

RN: I think so, absolutely. More importantly, the company that intends to commercialize an idea will need to have all of those skill sets (technical, business and commercial) represented.

I still definitely haven't mastered all of those skills. We have over 100 people working on this to bring it up to market and bring it forward now.

But I do think that technical inventors will have to prove their vision of how those technologies will move into products that make sense for markets and for customers.

CNN: And finally, what would your advice be to would-be inventors wrestling with tomorrow's big ideas?

RN: Think big and have perseverance.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
Engineer Alan Bond has been developing a new concept for space travel for over 30 years -- and his creation is now on the verge of lift off.
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Crumbling buildings, burnt-out PCs, and cracked screens -- a new generation of "self-healing" technologies could soon consign them to history.
updated 5:09 AM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
Discover a dancing cactus field, basketball on the Hudson River, and mind-bending 3D projections on robotic screens.
updated 1:07 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
Would you live there? Design student Peter Trimble says it's actually a surprisingly good idea.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
Alpha Sphere
Singing Tesla coils, musical ice cream, vegetables on drums... and this ball? Find out how "hackers" have created a new generation of instruments.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
Technology has long learned from nature, but now it's going micro. "Cellular biomimicry" sees designers take inspiration from plant and animal cells.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Forget wearable tech, embeddable implants are here. Learn more about the pioneers who are implanting devices into their bodies.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
A visitor of the 'NEXT Berlin' conference tries out Google Glass, a wearable computer that responds to voice commands and displays information before your eyes. It is expected to go to market in late 2013.
We know how wearable tech can enhance our fitness lives but there's evidence that its most significant application is yet to come: the workplace.
updated 4:13 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Samsung's research unit announces new way to synthesize graphene, potentially opening the door to commercial production.
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
iRobot, creators of vacuuming robot Roomba reveal how they learned from secret experiments -- in space travel, minefields, and toys.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
A light-bulb glowing in middle of a room with no wires attached. "It's the future," says Dr Katie Hall.
updated 11:26 AM EST, Mon March 3, 2014
Knee replacements that encourage cells to regrow could soon be manufactured -- by spiders. Find out how.
updated 9:03 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Meet Chuck Hull: the humble American engineer who changed the world of manufacturing.
updated 9:48 AM EST, Thu February 6, 2014
The key to self-knowledge? Or just the return of the phony "mood ring"? Check out our top mood-sensing technology in development.