Google May Buy Lytro in a Fire Sale to Boost Its VR...

Google May Buy Lytro in a Fire Sale to Boost Its VR Plans

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Several tech sites are now reporting Google plans to acquire light field pioneer Lytro. Speculation is that Google will leverage Lytro’s impressive engineering team to accelerate its development of VR solutions. That makes a great deal of sense, although there are other reasons this deal will provide some value for Google. Unfortunately for Lytro’s investors, the purchase price is rumored to be between $25 million and $40 million, far less than the $210 million invested in Lytro since Ren Ng founded it as Refocus Imaging.

Google Gets Serious About VR Content

Lytro Immerge conceptual renderingRecently, Google hired content creation superstar and all-around great guy Paul Debevec to help with its VR efforts. His team released their first public demo this week. If you have a VR headset, it provides you with a glimpse of what is possible using light field cameras. Instead of having a fixed 360-degree image around you, you can move your head and look around things, while shadows and reflections track perfectly. In his blog post announcing the demo, Debevec also provides an excellent explanation of how the system works.

The first question asked about the demo was “How is this different from Lytro?” And the answer is that Lytro wants to do the same thing, except with actual video capture instead of patiently constructed still scenes. It has demoed prototypes of both planar and rotating arrays of cameras that can create immersive worlds. These are of particular interest to Hollywood special effects houses, since they can much more easily add virtual creations to a video that includes a full three-dimensional scene than they can to a traditional 2D or even conventional 3D video.

Don’t Forget About Phones

Another possible reason to acquire Lytro and its technology is to accelerate the development of computational imaging in Google’s smartphones and camera-equipped appliances. One of Ng’s mentors at Stanford, Marc Levoy, is now at Google working on exactly that. As smartphones move to multiple cameras working together to provide advanced imaging capabilities, ranging from simulated Bokeh to facial recognition, they move slowly closer to capturing light fields. Lytro’s pioneering work in that area has resulted in dozens of patents, which Google would also presumably get as part of an acquisition.

Lytro Illum light field camera, backside and screen

A Bittersweet Ending for a Radically Innovative Company

Lytro has come a long way from its initial vision of revolutionizing consumer photography with a camera that let you focus after the fact. That strategy itself was not necessarily Lytro’s first choice, but like Foveon before it, licensing its technology to existing camera manufacturers proved nearly impossible. When the consumer camera fizzled, Lytro pivoted to a more professional model, the Illum, but only succeeded in puzzling the marketplace. Finally, Lytro moved into VR capture for the motion picture industry. It has produced some amazing prototypes and some incredible demo videos, but is short on real deployments.

For investors, this deal is certainly making the best of a tough situation. For employees, it’s a mixed bag. Some are reportedly already being let go, while others will no doubt be energized by having the stability and resources of Google at their disposal going forward.

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