This year, for the first time, a camera has been awarded PopSci's Innovation of the Year. The Lytro Light-Field Camera, a $400 gadget that allows photographers to re-focus pictures after they're taken, is the product of a decade of work from Ren Ng. As a computer-science grad student at Stanford University, Ng saw potential for a consumer camera in a light-field setup, which then necessitated a room-filling array of lenses--already the product of a century of light-based physics research. About 10 years later, his company has introduced a personal shooter that could be the biggest change in photography since the digital-image sensor.
Corinne Iozzio (PopSci): Your first exposure to a multi-lens setup wasn't until you were a graduate student at Stanford. Before then, you seemed set on a straight academic path. What made you change gears into creating a consumer product?
Ren Ng: The first light-field camera array I saw at Stanford had a bunch of applications, like to do special effects like you see in the Matrix where you spin the camera around in frozen motion. It took up an entire room. Looking at that, I realized I was more passionate about the camera for a person rather than research. I said, “I think this should be done in the body of a single camera rather than a room full of cameras.”