Google is reportedly buying light-field camera startup Lytro

According to multiple sources, Google is acquiring Lytro, an imaging startup that specializes in light-field technology.

Lytro is the company which became prominent for its light-field technology camera — the original shoot-now-focus-later camera which optically captures an entire scene with infinite depth of field (DoF) using a kind of reverse ray tracing. The capability subsequently mimicked using multishot modes in cameras  (by Panasonic’s Post Focus, for instance) and phones (such as the Galaxy S5). The possible acquisition was reported in TechCrunch.

If the rumours are true, it’s a smart acquisition, especially at the rumored price of $25 to $40 million (that’s about £1.8 to £2.8 million or AU$3.2 to AU$5.2 million, directly converted), as a relatively inexpensive way for Google to acquire the 59 light-field and imaging patents. That infinite DoF capability can be instrumental for creating VR and mixed-reality content because for a real-life experience you’re constantly changing the view and focus area while you’re immersed. 

At stake are Lytro’s 59 patents related to light-field and digital imaging technologies. The company, founded in 2006, created the first consumer camera to utilize the technology, resulting in the camera’s ability to refocus photos to any part of the image after they’re taken. Lytro’s cameras do this by capturing all the rays of light from a scene, as well as information about where they came from.

The company only ever made two consumer cameras, neither of which sold very well, and eventually made the decision to refocus efforts on light-field video solutions, which could be applied to cinema and VR. It discontinued the manufacturing and distribution of Lytro cameras for photography, and in December of last year, pulled hosting support for pictures.lytro.com, where photos taken with Lytro cameras could be shared for users to play with refocusing and 3D depth features.

Though there are no details on what Google’s plans for Lytro might be, the acquisition could bolster Google’s own VR efforts. Recently, Google experimented with light-field photography, modding one of the 16-camera circular “Jump” rigs that Google developed a few years ago with GoPro cameras. The cameras were taken out of the original setup, repositioned in a vertical arc, and mounted on a platform that spins 360 degrees. The scenes that Google shot were then made available on an immersive image viewer app it released called “Light Fields.”

If Google manages to nab Lytro at the rumored $40 million price tag, it would be a rough exit for the startup. Over the years Lytro raised over $200 million in funding and as recently as 2017, was valued at around $360 million. Rick Osterloh, SVP of hardware at Google, sits on Lytro’s board.

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