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挑战佳能与尼康,Lytro胜算几何?

挑战佳能与尼康,Lytro胜算几何?作者: Michal Lev-Ram 时间: 2011年06月24日 来源: 财富中文网
即将由Lytro公司推出的相机只需一次拍摄,便可通过鼠标点击,在图像的任意位置重新聚焦。不过大多数摄像发烧友关心的唯一问题还是它的价格。

照相机市场出现黑马:Lytro公司。这家创业公司位于美国加利福尼亚州的山景城,仅有45名员工。该公司计划推出一款革命性的相机,用户可以在拍摄之后重新对图片进行聚焦,这一新技术有望给整个行业带来巨大影响。

这家一向韬光养晦的小公司终于破壁而出,于本周早些时候公布了其总体发展规划,正式向相机业巨掣佳能公司(Canon)和尼康公司(Nikon)发起了挑战。Lytro公司透露,其新款“光场”相机(light field)采用特殊的传感器,可以记录每一束光线的颜色、强度和方向,因此,与普通数码相机相比,该相机可以捕捉更多数据。而所捕捉的所有信息将被存储在每个图片文件中,用户可以用前所未有的方式编辑和处理照片——包括在拍摄之后将照片重新聚焦,以及修改拍摄角度等。此外,该款相机即使在弱光条件下也无需使用闪光灯即可正常拍摄。

我曾有幸亲眼见证了Lytro相机的编辑功能,可以说,它远比目前市场上的任何相机和图片编辑软都更出色、更酷。毫无疑问,该公司的技术创新很可能是相机行业突破性的变革——也许无法与相机的数码化相提并论,但无疑意义重大。

但Lytro公司并不打算把它的技术授权给现有的相机制造商,至少目前还没有这样的计划(Lytro公司创始人兼首席执行官吴义仁表示“不会说得过于绝对”)。这家创业公司计划在今年晚些时候推出自主品牌的Lytro相机,因为他们自信“能做得更好。”但是,尝试过进入消费电子领域的小公司都知道,要抢占那些“庞然大物”的地盘绝非易事。

公司CEO吴义仁表示,与几年前相比,现在成立一家相机公司要容易得多。Lytro相机将由一家台湾公司负责生产,并主要通过网络进行销售,渠道包括Facebook和其他一些网站。然而,除了早期使用者、技术人员和摄影发烧友之外,要让其他人接受这款相机还较为困难。Lytro公司目前尚未公布相机的价格,但价格同样是个关键。毕竟,普通摄影爱好者不可能花大价钱购买一款商品化的硬件设备,不管其功能多么强大。

Lytro公司要想单干,还有另外一个拦路虎——手机。越来越多的人开始放弃专用相机,转而用移动设备拍摄照片。所以,对于Lytro公司而言,更明智的做法是将技术授权给现有的手机制造商,而不是一头扎进另外一个商品化的消费电子市场,因为这个行业竞争更加激烈,并且已经饱和。

Lytro公司的光场技术前景广阔。该技术最早出现于二十世纪九十年代中期的斯坦福大学(Stanford University),当时还是一个研究课题。截至目前,要捕捉一个场景中各个方向的所有光线,需要数百台连接到计算机的相机同时工作。2006年,吴义仁关于光场成像技术的博士论文获得了斯坦福大学计算机科学最佳博士论文奖。而近几年,他一直致力于缩小公司识别传感器的尺寸,以便进行批量生产。

但即便是本•霍洛维茨也认为,开发捕捉光场的传感器或许并没有那么难。霍洛维茨是安德森•霍洛维茨基金(Andreessen Horowitz)的联合创始人,同时也是Lytro公司投资人。

霍洛维茨在周二发表的一篇博客中写道:“或许最困难的任务,是设计一款软件,可以从光场中生成一张,甚至成千上万张美丽的图片。过去几年,与手机的命运相同,相机也逐渐成为以软件为主要卖点的产品。过去5年,手机业发生了翻天覆地的变化,而相机业也将涌现出拥有世界级软件能力的新行业领袖。”

专注软件——而不是硬件——这或许是Lytro公司应该侧重软件/授权业务而远离消费电子产品业务的另外一个理由。

到目前为止,关于新款相机的具体发布时间(吴义仁表示将在今年晚些时候)和销售价格,Lytro公司依然没有给出明确的回应。公司已经获得约5,000万美元投资,投资方包括安德森•霍洛维茨基金、格雷洛克风险投资公司(Greylock Partners)和风险投资公司K9 Ventures,以及个人出资方,包括虚拟机软件公司VMWare联合创始人黛安妮•格林和斯灵传媒(Sling Media)联合创始人布莱克•克里科里安。尽管尚未面世,但Lytro的新型相机已在媒体引起轰动。

未来的Lytro相机是否会像佳能和尼康相机一样,最终变成大众消费品呢?这一点尚不确定;不过,我想它(非常酷)的核心技术肯定会得到普及。




There's a new player in the camera market: Lytro, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup with just 45 employees, is hoping to disrupt the industry with an innovative camera that lets users focus a picture after it's been taken.

The tiny company came out of stealth mode earlier this week, unveiling its master plan to take on heavyweights like Canon and Nikon. According to Lytro, its new "light field" cameras will capture more data than your average digital camera by using a special sensor that records the color, intensity and direction of every beam of light. Because all of this extra information is saved in each image file, users will be able to edit and play with their photos in new ways -- including refocusing a picture and changing its orientation after it's been taken. They'll also be able to take photos in low light conditions without using flash.

After seeing Lytro's editing capabilities in action, I can tell you it's much, much cooler than anything current cameras and image editing software will let you do. And yes, the company's technology even has the potential to become a breakthrough innovation in the camera industry -- not on par with the move to digital but significant nonetheless.

But Lytro isn't planning on licensing its technology to existing camera makers, at least not anytime soon (founder and CEO Ren Ng says "never say never"). The startup is planning on coming out with its own Lytro-branded camera later this year because it believes "we can do it better." But as any other small company that has tried cracking the consumer electronics industry knows, going up against the giants will be anything but easy.

CEO Ng says it's much easier launching a camera company today than it would have been just a few years ago. A Taiwanese company will manufacture Lytro's cameras, which will be sold through online retailers and marketed on Facebook and other websites. Still, getting the word out beyond the early adopters, techies and photography fanatics could prove tricky. Pricing -- which Lytro has yet to announce -- will also be key, because it's unlikely your average picture-taker will pay a big premium for a commoditized piece of hardware, no matter how cool its features.

And here's another possible hurdle for Lytro's plan to go at it alone -- cell phones. More and more people are ditching dedicated cameras and snapping pictures with their mobile device. So it would make sense for Lytro to someday license its technology to existing cell phone makers instead of jumping into yet another cutthroat, saturated and commoditized consumer electronics market.

Lytro's light field technology is promising, and it's come a long way since its roots in a Stanford University lab, where it started out as a research project in the mid-1990s. Up until recently, capturing all of the light traveling in every direction in a particular scene required hundreds of cameras tied to a series of computers. But Ng, whose research in light field photography won best PhD dissertation in computer science at Stanford back in 2006, has spent the last few years getting the company's signature sensors small enough for mass production.

But even Ben Horowitz, one-half of Andreessen Horowitz and a Lytro investor, says developing the sensor that captures the light field may have been the easy part.

"Building software that generates a beautiful picture, or thousands of different beautiful pictures, from the light field may be the most difficult task," Horowitz wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "As cameras become primarily software products in the same way that phones became primarily software products over the past several years, new industry leaders with world-class software capabilities will emerge in the same way that the phone industry has turned upside down over the past 5 years."

This focus on software -- not hardware -- is another reason Lytro might want to skew towards the software/licensing business and away from consumer electronics.

For now, the company is remaining mum on exactly when its new cameras will launch (Ng says it will happen later this year) or how much they will cost. To date, the company has raised about $50 million from an impressive list of investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and K9 Ventures and individual funders like VMWare cofounder Diane Greene and Sling Media cofounder Blake Krikorian. And its launch is already making a big splash in the media.

So will Lytro's cameras someday be as commonplace as Canons and Nikons? Doubtful, though I'm guessing its (very cool) underlying technology will.