Lytro and the Medium of the Interactive Image

Digital Technologies, Further Mediums Add Comment

When a new technology is being released to the market, how can you tell if it is just another gadget or it represents a fundamental paradigm shift? Lytro is a recent technology which, at least initially, seems like it might be the latter. Whether it becomes a commercial success or not is dependent on many other factors, but looking at it from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory reveals that it is more than just a technology – rather, it introduces and reinforces an altogether alternative understanding of what images can be.

Lytro is a type of camera that promises to take pictures which can be focused later on when viewing them: If you want to sharpen an element in the foreground, click on it and it becomes focused; If it is a background detail that you want to see, click on it and now the focus of the image is again set accordingly. Since this technology is new, it is not yet available for demonstration from within this blog, but I recommend that you try it for yourself here.

How is this done? It uses a novel lens system which is fitted into a specialized handheld camera. This complex set of lenses replaces the need to set the focus of the image before taking it, and actually captures the whole depth of the visual field – or in other words, it captures all of the potential focal points of an image. All this information is stored in a digital file, and as long as it is uploaded to a website that is equipped with its image viewer, anyone can adapt the focus of the images as they wish – upon viewing them.

What is so special about it? What it provides is not just another way of producing photographs or of viewing them (like a digital camera does), nor is it a tool for manipulating photographs that exist independently of it (like Photoshop is). Rather, it ventures away from photography into the territory of a whole other pictorial medium. With its combination of image capturing device, digital file format, and image viewing software, the overall result can simply no longer be considered to be a static image, but rather an interactive image. The viewed place is still static, but the image of it is not – it is adjustable by the viewer.

As proposed in my book The Architecture of Virtual Space, all pictorial images are windows to virtual space, regardless of their medium. What does tell mediums apart is the type of window that they provide, e.g., photography provides a static window, and film provides a dynamic window. Thus, a window to virtual space which inherently allows the adjustment of what one sees through that window is by definition another type of window – that is, another medium altogether.

In that sense, Lytro is reminiscent of previous technologies that have expanded photography beyond static images and provided various aspects of what interactive images can be. Two such comparable technologies are QuickTime VR and HDR images:

- QuickTime VR is a means of taking photographs that capture all views around the camera in 360 degrees – around, above, and below. Stored in a specialized image file, these images can be viewed in QuickTime player, and by clicking and dragging the mouse the viewer can change his angle of view of the place seen through the image. (To see it for yourself you can find the QuickTime viewer here, and sample images for it here.)

- HDR (High Dynamic Range) images are a technology designed to capture and represent a wide range of light exposures in a single image file. This is very useful for many aspects of digital imaging, but it also provides the ability to choose the degree of light exposure of an image while it is being viewed, rather than when it is being produced. (To see it for yourself you can find an HDR viewer here, and sample HDR images here.)

Therefore, Lytro joins QuickTime VR and HDR images in providing experiences of virtual space in which the viewer has a degree of control over what he sees. Each of them explores yet another variation on the medium of the interactive image – whether by allowing the viewer to choose his angle of view, the light exposure, or the focal point. Over time we may even see a technology that allows all three, as well as additional forms of image control.

However, these should not be seen only as enhanced forms of photography. After all, these same types of images can be produced by 3D computer graphic programs just as well. Thus, the fundamental development here is not only the impressive technique of making images, but in the widening understanding of what pictorial images can be: virtual places that can be actively explored in ever more ways.