Marcel Duchamp. Pablo Picasso. A Nikon D100 camera. Bugs.
These were the inspirations for Ren Ng, inventor of Lytro, the spyglass-like camera that launched last year to critical acclaim.
The innovation behind the camera itself, which can capture pictures from virtually all depths in one click, is often traced back to Ng’s groundbreaking, 187-page Stanford graduate thesis, written in 2006. But eureka moments happen outside the research lab too—likely in the same place where that apple bopped Newton on the forehead—and for Ng, who was recently named to our 100 Most Creative People in Business list, the story is no different.
At Stanford, Ng had been exploring the concept of light-field photography, the then-theoretical notion that a camera sensor could capture all light traveling in every direction, allowing a photograph to be refocused after the shot. Here, Ng discusses the inspirations behind his academic pursuits, which led to his first startup, Lytro, and $50 million in venture funding.
Ever since high school, Ng has had a love for painting. His favorite artists—Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Arshile Gorky—are all from the cubist phase, but there’s one painting in particular which held real connotations for his future invention. "The one [painting] I like the most is Duchamp’s 'Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,'" Ng says. "It’s seeing the form in a very abstract way descending a staircase, and seeing all of them at the same time."
In a sense, that’s exactly what Lytro now enables its users to do—see a picture from all angles within one shot, just like a cubist painting. "There’s something really magical about trying to see things in new ways that go beyond, in some sense, the biological human experience," he says. "Light-field photography, too, goes beyond the human experience because our eyes work like conventional cameras. The reason we know as human beings that pictures have to be focused before you take the shot is because we know if we’re not focusing our eyes on something that happens, then it’s too late—you can’t go searching in your memory to find it because that light never struck your mind."
Of course, the chief inspiration behind Lytro did not derive from paintings but from photography. Ng likes to say that he’s had a camera in his hands since when he was first born. "I’ve been really passionate about photography for a very long time," he says. "I don’t remember the first picture I took, but I actually found a picture of myself on a trip back to my old family home in Malaysia. I’m five years old, sitting on the floor with the family camera in my hand. It was a film camera—not a DSLR—with a fixed lens and a nice manual zoom. So my love for photography goes back even longer than I can remember."
During Thanksgiving in 2003, Ng trained his Nikon D100 on close family friend’s daughter. The result was disappointing for the avid photographer. "She had this terrific smile but her face is just a little blurry, and you don’t get that twinkle that comes from a perfectly focused picture of the reflection in someone’s eyes," Ng recalls. "That really crystallized this problem for me: Do pictures have to be focused before you take the shot?"
Pursuing that question reframed his life—all thanks to his love of portraiture. "It’s very difficult to take candid portraits of children because they’re moving around all the time," Ng says. "In this picture, she’s a little bit out of focus. Most people don’t notice when they see the picture—it’s focused just behind the back of her head, as opposed to her eyes—but any serious photographer would, and I certainly did."
"Portraiture is about getting people to behave in a way where the picture will capture a slice of themselves that really is representative of the kind of personality they have. I think there’s a real joy in trying to find that moment in photography—getting that exact moment when someone smiles. There’s something a little sports-like about it: Henri Cartier-Bresson really popularized the notion of the 'decisive moment’ in photography. Lytro aids in that process, helping you take the picture at the right time—a huge advantage for capturing the decisive moment. We’ve used the technology not just so you can focus after the fact to fix problems, but so you now have a new kind of picture that tells a story interactively."
"A light-field camera is like a mammalian eye, where the retina has been ripped out and replaced with an appropriate kind of insect eye," Ng says. "That’s the biological analog of it."
You likely can picture exactly what Ng is referring to—the sort of multi-lens eye you might see on a fly or mosquito. In fact, insect eyes were an inspiration for Lytro. During Ng’s research, he actually connected with the foremost expert on the topic. "I did a lot of reading on animal eyes, and actually consulted the world expert on this—a guy in Suffolk university in the U.K.," he says. "At least to his knowledge, there is no biological system in the world that has that optical design. And I find that fascinating."
Watch the video below with Lytro’s Director of Photography, Eric Cheng, where he describes how the Lytro technology works:
[Insect Image: Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock]