Lytro’s new Cinema camera will allow 3D movies to be shot using light fields

Lytro has made no secret of its need to move from selling mass-market products to consumers to high-end tools to professionals. It started that transition with its announcement of Immerge, a planned offering for immersive content creators. But before anyone has even seen an Immerge, Lytro has introduced Cinema — a product which will offer many of the same benefits as Immerge, but is aimed at traditional movie makers. Cinema is a super-high-resolution, super-high-performance, video capture and processing system that incorporates light field capture to allow movie makers to get a 3D (or really, almost 3D) version of the scene, allowing for changing camera settings like focus, aperture, and shutter angle after the fact. It also turns just about any set into a green screen.

Lytro puts the Cinema at 755 RAW Megapixels — whatever that means. I interpret that as meaning the total number of photo elements captured is 755 million, but since angular information is being captured, the actual spatial resolution (e.g. output megapixels) will be quite a bit less. Lytro hasn’t said whether the Cinema uses an array of traditional imagers or uses custom versions with microlenses, the way its earlier products did. The Cinema records at up to 300 fps, and at a nearly incredible 16-stops of dynamic range. It’ll be great to see how Lytro has accomplished all that in a unit about the same size as a TV studio camera, once the company reveals the details.

A frame from the demo video for Lytro Cinema illustrates how capturing a light field from a single camera position has its limits, as occluded objects can't all be capturedThe design goal for Cinema is the complete virtualization of the camera. With it, cinematographers can not only refocus a scene after shooting, but vary the depth of field (or even create synthetic combinations of in-focus objects) and the shutter angle (movie speak for shutter speed) and output frame rate. Perhaps of most interest is the integrated depth information — generated both by the light field capture and an active scanning system — which will allow easy green screening of backgrounds or specific objects. Depth information also allows for much easier compositing of computer-generated objects into a video shot with Cinema. To help make this possible Lytro is integrating Cinema’s post-processing software with several popular editing tools.

Lytro is not the first to use light fields for cinema. German tech powerhouse Fraunhofer has been showcasing a film shot with its array of cameras that allow for most of the same post-processing magic that Lytro’s Cinema will — although not with nearly the same resolution and frame rate. Its short film, Coming Home, provides a glimpse of what is possible using light fields for live action movie creation. And even better, Fraunhofer has made a video that shows the background on how it captured and processed the footage to make the movie.

Lytro, and many of the articles about Cinema, wax eloquent about how it “captures all the rays of light within a scene.” That’s a bit of hyperbole. It captures all (or nearly all) the rays of light emitted from a scene that happen to pass through the camera’s lens. You can change your point of view a little bit after the fact, but you can’t peer around corners, or look behind objects, for example. That’s why multi-camera rigs like USC LightStages exist. Of course, if you are trying to mimic a green screen, often the background objects will be discarded anyway.

For now, Lytro Cinema seems like a nearly magical device, but we’ll know a lot more when Lytro unveils it to attendees at the NAB show in Las Vegas next week — where Fraunhofer will also be talking about its work. It will also be premiering Life, a short film shot with the Cinema and created in conjunction with the Virtual Reality Company. Lytro expects the Cinema to be available on a subscription basis to a limited set of partners for production applications starting in Q3. Pricing wasn’t announced, but if you have to ask…

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