So, you're looking at that one photo you took, and wishing that the flower in the foreground was in focus instead of the person behind it? Well it's no big deal, just go in and shift the focus. Oh yeah, that's right, you can't ... but you will be able to soon. California-based Lytro, Inc. announced today that its consumer light field camera is now available for preorder, and should be shipping early next year. It is the first camera of its kind made for the general public.

Light field cameras use a microlens array and a light field sensor to separately record the color, intensity and vector direction of all the light rays reflected towards them. Algorithms then turn all that data into one image, but users can still manipulate the way in which it's presented after the photo has been taken. Primarily, this means that they can choose between having the foreground, middle, or background subjects in focus, or they can select all three together.

By contrast, regular cameras simply combine all the light rays, and represent them as one amount of light - once the photo has been taken, you're stuck with it the way it is.

Light field technology also allows pictures to be taken in lower light (because all of the light is used), shutter lag is greatly reduced (the camera doesn't have to focus), and both 2D and 3D images can be obtained from the same shot. Even when viewed in 2D, users can still subtly adjust the viewing perspective after the fact - if they think that a certain photo would have looked better had the camera been located just an inch to the right, for instance, they can adjust the shot accordingly.

Lytro's new camera is very simple - at least on the outside. It has a fixed-iris f2 lens, an 8X optical zoom, weighs less than eight ounces (227 grams), and its pocket-sized aluminum body comes in three colors. It has only two controls - power and shutter - along with a touchscreen display on which shots are manipulated using Lytro's "light field engine."

Buyers can choose between 8GB and 16GB models, which store 350 and 750 shots respectively. Although 3D capability won't be available immediately, the required algorithms should be ready (presumably in the form of firmware) sometime next year.

Users will be able to download shots from the camera onto their computer using a free desktop application. It will also allow them to share their photos on sites such as Facebook and by email. As the light field engine data travels with the images, people receiving the shots will still be able to change their focus as desired. An OS X version of the software is already available, with a Windows version coming next year.

The camera can be preordered now on Lytro's website, at a price of US$399 for the 8GB model, or $499 for the 16GB.

You can see first-hand how the technology works, by clicking on different parts of the Lytro-supplied light field photo below.

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