Lytro's Video Surveillance Potential Examined

By John Honovich, Published Jun 22, 2011, 12:00am EDT

In 2011, a 3+ year old company gained an amazing amount of press. The company, originally called Refocus Imaging, now rebranded as Lytro announced a $50 Million found raise from one of the hottest investors in Silicon Valley - Andressen Horowitz (who wrote a gushing post about the technology). In this note, we examine the company and technology's potential for video surveillance applications. We explain why we think it is has little chance of short term impact or improvement for surveillance.

Let's start with examining the basic claims by Lytro:

  • The technology centers around capturing and processing 'light fields'. As their technology description [link no longer available] notes, light fields are: "the amount of light traveling in every direction through every point in space – it’s all the light rays in a scene. Conventional cameras cannot record the light field."
  • Company's marketing claims: The practical application [link no longer available] of processing light fields is that it enables (1) "no fuss focus" - users can just point and click and  (2) "Instant On" - no need to wait for camera to focus.
  • The company will be manufacturing cameras as the technology requires its own proprietary hardware. This is not a software add-on for existing cameras or post processing.

Below is a 1 minute overview video from the company that demos the technology:

Here is an interview with the company's founder from TechCrunch:

 

 

Our Analysis

Two main issues likely will constrain this technology from having an impact on video surveillance applications:

  • It does not solve a key video surveillance problem
  • The company and its investors are unlikely to focus on the surveillance market

The company aims to solve a common problem in digital photography but not one in surveillance. In photography, people take shots of different scenes routinely and want the convenience of being able to do so quickly. In surveillance, cameras are set up once to monitor a specific scene. The time needed to focus and issues of cameras being out of focus are not major problems. To the extent being out of focus is periodically an issue, auto back focus capabilities are a much simpler, straightforward solution. Also, while PTZ cameras do move, they require long range optical zooms - a feature we do not see this company supporting any time in the near future.

Secondly, the $50 Million investment and the stated intent of the company is to go after the much larger digital photography camera market. Video surveillance cameras are a far smaller niche as well as less sexy to big name investors like the ones involved here. This make it highly unlikely they will even attempt to build or market a product to surveillance.

Outlook

Media coverage has been amazing and the hype level is intense (e.g., see a front page NYTimes article on them). We believe is because of a combination of factors: (1) big name investor, (2) a bullish investment climate and (3) the fact that there is actually hard technology here (unlike the online coupon companies so en vogue recently). That noted, the company has existed for a number of years as Refocus Imaging (see a 2008 article [link no longer available] with the same claims from the founder).

While we do not know how well this will work in the consumer market, we do not think this has any impact in the short to mid term in surveillance. If the company is successful in the consumer market, like other technologies that migrated, we might see migration to surveillance. However, this is the most bullish scenario, one that we do not think has any real possibility until the second part of this decade (2015 or later).

[Update 2014: Lytro is not gaining much traction even in the consumer market.]

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