At the end of the first season of the HBO tech comedy “Silicon Valley,” the characters turn up at a conference where one CEO after another stands up on a stage and insists that their company is “making the world a better place.” But the reasons these imaginary entrepreneurs give are intensely niche and jargon-filled, bordering on nonsensical.
That’s a pretty good send-up of the real-life tech industry: Everyone insists they’re changing the world. But true innovations — the smartphone, the global internet, self-driving cars — are uncommon signals in all that noise.
Rajiv Laroia is the rare technologist who can offer a compelling argument that his product carries that revolutionary potential. As the chief technology officer at a camera startup called Light, he’s created a camera promising never-before-seen quality and functionality with a footprint small enough to fit (maybe a bit uncomfortably) in your pocket.
Light announced its first camera, the L16, back in October. Described rather obtusely in a press release as the “first multi-aperture computational camera,” the small company nonetheless received so many pre-orders for a $1,699 camera still in its prototype stage that they had to shut down the pre-order program.
Asked in an interview if he thinks the L16 can compete with top-tier offerings from established companies like Nikon and Canon, Laroia laughs.
Light’s VP of marketing Bradley Lautenbach clarifies: Because of their product, he says, in “five to ten years” the major camera brands will no longer exist.
Cameras are better then ever, but they need to go
I first heard about Light’s L16 camera not from a press release but from Chicago wedding photographer Misty Winter. She’d worked in the industry for long enough to grow tired of hauling around two heavy Canon DSLRs and bags full of lenses everywhere she went.
After hearing rumours about an iPhone-sized device with optical zoom, wide-aperture lensing, and DSLR-like sensor quality, she told me she’d ditch her Canons as soon as she could get her hands on one. Riding in her passenger seat with my back aching after a day of hauling around heavy equipment, I privately doubted that day would come.
Serious photographers favour cameras with detachable lenses and physically large sensors — the sort that can only be found in large, professional DSLRs — because they offer a degree of control over image-making that you just can’t find in smaller, cheaper devices. Purpose-built interchangable lenses offer exceptional quality with the option of wide apertures and shallow depths of field. And the width of a DSLR’s sensor area produces an image closer to what you see with a human eye.
Reproducing or beating that technology in a device as portable and convenient as a smartphone would have been the holy grail of camera design if it weren’t so utterly implausible that no one was talking about it.
Until Light launched the L16 it seemed obvious that physics would prevent professional cameras from getting much smaller than they are. A 35-millimetre sensor requires large glass projecting far from its nose in order to properly focus light. Even now the loudest debate in high-end cameras is whether the bulky mirror mechanisms in DSLRs will ever give way to marginally lighter and thinner MILCs.
But even as Light promises to leapfrog generations of professional camera design, Lautenbach says the company doesn’t think much at all about photographers like Winter.
“Professionals represent a tiny sliver of the big pie in the camera market,” he says. Instead, he says, Light’s goal is to bring premium image-making capabilities to casual shooters used to the simple interface of a smartphone screen.
How the L16 aims to do the impossible
The L16 collects light information from 16 different lenses and sensors mounted haphazardly on its back.
Five of those cameras shoot at 35mm and are roughly equivalent in design to those you’d find on the back of your phone. The other 11 have long 70mm- or 150mm-equivalent lenses, and involve some incredible innovation.
In order to shoot with such a long focal length without popping out the front of the device, each long lens lies flat across the L16 and collects light from mirrors set into the camera’s body at 45-degree angles. The result is a folded lens, with its bulk stowed neatly and invisibly into the camera. The mirrors can also tilt to adjust the segment of the scene each sensor captures.
Depending on the focal length (zoom) the L16 is set to within its 35mm-150mm range, up to ten of the L16’s eyes fire for a given shot. The camera records the light information and uses it to generate a single image.
Due to the wealth of information the camera collects, only zoom and shutter speed are determined at the moment of shooting. Photographers can adjust the focus, depth-of-field, and exposure of the up-to-52-megapixel result after the fact, according to Laroia.
All that light connecting with all those sensors should also result in much better low-light images, though again we have only a few example shots and Laroia’s word to go by.
I haven’t actually gotten my hands on one of the ~50 L16 prototypes Lautenbach says Light has built. No journalist has, and its exact design and specs are not yet public. (We do know that it will lack certain features, like a hotshoe or port for flashes, that some photographers rely on.) But the example shots the company has released look promising, if a bit kit-lens-y.
Regardless of whether the L16 has the capacity to truly shoot like a top-of-the-line camera though, it seems almost certain that it represents the bleeding edge of a generational leap in photography at least as massive and disruptive as the one from film to digital.
The L16 is just a first step
Laroia and Lautenbach describe the L16 less as a blockbuster gadget than an industry-upending proof-of-concept. Whether the product crushes Nikon, Canon, and Sony sales or entirely flops, a functioning L16 on a Best Buy shelf would be a massive success. As long as Light can show computational photography cameras working in consumers hands, the L16’s release will mark the beginning of the end both traditional cameras and traditional smartphones.
That’s because the concept is scalable. Laroia says the L16 doesn’t need all 16 of its eyes to function. The company has partnered with Foxconn, the massive faceless behemoth behind the manufacture of the world’s iPhones, iPads, Kindles, Playstations, Huawei P9s and countless other devices.
Lautenbach says he can’t say exactly how the consumer giant will use Light’s technology in smartphones, but hints at some major difference from what consumers are used to.
“You’ll start to see smartphones with two or three cameras,” he says. (The LG G5 is a good example.) But he says the first company to work with Light to include many more than that on its smartphone will have a huge advantage. So while the iPhone 7 might have a dual lens, it’s not crazy to think that iPhone 8 or 9 could have something closer to the L16’s compound eyes.
An important caveat here: With about the length and width of an iPhone 6s Plus, a Snapdragon processor, Android, and a 5-inch touchscreen on the back, the L16 already strongly resembles a smartphone. But it’s closer in thickness to a paperback serial novel. Unless smartphone makers decide to work against trend with future devices, it’s likely that no mass-market smartphone will feature quite this level of functionality. However, it’s extremely likely that capabilities once reserved for enthusiasts and professionals will proliferate to the general public through similar small, high-powered devices, including phones.
As for the premium photography market, Lautenbach and Laroia seem less interested in directly competing there. They say they’re confident their product and its descendants will make big cameras impractical for most consumers. However, it’s easy to imagine that upmarket computational cameras, perhaps with wider zoom ranges or effective sensor sizes closer to medium format, will be on their way sooner or later.
However this all plays out, expect any camera you buy today to be utterly obsolete by its fifth birthday.