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Smartphone and lightfield cameras: Why "That will never happen" is wrong

4 minute read

Opinion: Skeptics love to cast doubt on new technologies, but the current rate of technological change means we're set for more groundbreaking advancements, not less.

The future is not set. But what you think is the future is already here.

It is difficult to believe where we are technology wise. While, for most of the time, each subsequent update of the latest iPhone or camera seems to only offer minor incremental changes, when we add all those up and compare the latest models to what we had only a handful of years earlier, we have moved on quite substantially.

Smartphone cameras

Okay, that may seem obvious, but if we look back at various techie conversations in only recent years gone by, many of the advancements we see today were downright ridiculed as being either impossible or extremely unlikely. Not so very long ago, vocal critics said that no smartphone would ever replace a regular camera for photographs or video. Such a small sensor, so the wisdom went, could never ever produce a decent dynamic range, noise performance or resolution needed for serious stills or video capture.

We are now using smartphones regularly for photo taking. The compact camera is a dying breed. The introduction of raw DNG stills capture on iPhones 6S and above has further elevated such devices as extremely versatile photo-takers. With a Lifeproof case, this makes my iPhone the only waterproof compact camera to have this ability. It has come to the point where 500PX has released a specific RAW app for the iPhone that allows the monetisation of pictures that have been taken with it, as well as paid assignments to be taken on. Is it a replacement for a DSLR? Of course not. But if I am on holiday, I know which camera I would rather cart around for the day. The iPhone 7 Plus has also started to answer the zoom lens question, too.

Depth mapping for cameras to enable adjustment of focus in post or easier creation of 3D versions of footage is another example of a technology that was once written off. I was told once by a very prominent broadcast TV engineer that such an idea was silly and wouldn't work for the purposes I had described. Yet, here we are with such features, in stills form, on everyday mobile phones.

Light field imaging

When HD first arrived, many people said that there was no point. It took over and nobody in their right mind would prefer to watch SD now. Once again, when 4K arrived, there was no point to this, either. And so it goes, that quite often when new technology arrives, there is always resistance from some quarters. But what I find really fascinating is how quickly much more outlandish developments are also dismissed.

As we have seen, what was outlandish yesterday is normal today. The same engineer also told me that (now defunct) Lytro would never (and could never) build a video capable version of its device. And yet, here we are again, with that very thing, albeit in gigantic prototype form.

The interesting thing about the Lytro camera is that it had the potential to truly turn everything that we think we know about video production on its head. For one thing, it effectively renders frame rates irrelevant until post production. Shutter speed, too, is irrelevant until post. Everything we know about archaic green and blue screen compositing can also be thrown out onto the same pile as the horse drawn carriage, consigned to the curious bin of history.

Even the lighting itself can potentially be adjusted in post, because the camera is effectively reverse raytracing to record the image. As a VR camera, are we looking at a real life version of the Esper machine in Blade Runner? While we are talking about light capture, this may also open the door to much better up-converting of resolutions, too.

Yet, we still have people saying that, because the system is so large and eats up so much data, it will never be put into a device the size of a normal camera. On the contrary, this is precisely what Lytro was intending to do. The company certainly didn't embark on such costly R&D for a bit of a technology experiment. Remember that there was a time when everybody assumed that computers would always be huge. The mere concept of a personal computer was laughable. It was science fiction and wouldn't happen within anyone's lifetime.

A system similar to Lytro will mark a step change in the way we capture the world and produce narratives. VR and 3D systems are, by themselves, rather crude technology. However, devices such as the Lytro Cinema Camera offered a glimpse of a future where such capabilities are amalgamated into one system. There will come a point where traditional 2D photocell capture will become a thing of the past and, with the pace that such technology is progressing, we are probably talking sooner than later.

There is one important question, though. And that is whether, like the Industrial Revolution, certain jobs could become redundant, particularly if the camera was a 360 model. 

Already at its most basic, focus is decided in post production using such a capture device. So, we can already write off the job of focus puller. With the extreme resolution of a lightfield camera, could a conversation scene, for example, be captured in one take and then the composition and framing for each final shot be directed afterwards?

With 360 and a light field camera's ability to capture depth, as well as light direction, at extremely high frame rates, you could effectively key frame and stabilise to the point where a Steadicam isn't needed either. After all, there is no motion blur to eliminate and, if gyro and compass information are simultaneously recorded, it wouldn't matter one iota how much the image recording device was being shaken about. Even more so because the Lytro allows limited corrections to 3D space and perspective, as well.

I can hear the howls of objection already. But with such capable new technology come lots of abilities that may not have been thought of at first, as well as consequences. Importantly, where Lytro is concerned, we are not talking about pie in the sky capabilities. We are talking about a technology that is out there, right now, and it is being used and developed further by others. This isn't idle futuristic speculation, but the 'here and now'.

The moral of the story is not to be so quick to write off even the most outlandish or extreme of developments and to assume that their availability and effect will be felt much sooner than you think it will. History teaches us how quickly things can and do happen. Our current technological development is accelerating at an exponential rate. In other words, the rate of change and the number of vast new capabilities are appearing to market faster and faster and not at a constant drip feed.

Tags: Technology