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Going lightly blind

Lytro is an interesting company in the photo space because it is one of the rare few that has taken the very challenging path of trying to introduce a brand new image format.  Instead of trying to stretch the last dying pixels of the too common jpg and it’s flat, 2D appearance by adding filters and other artifacts, it has plunged deep into the conviction that there is a not only a space but a demand to produce and consume photos that offer more depth.

Using light field technology, Lytro has now launched two products on the market, an enthusiast camera priced around $200 and more recently the pro version, the Illum, priced at $1,500.  Up to now, the resulting images could only be displayed in a proprietary player which created a huge barrier to a vast adoption. We all know that the internet is a very conservative space ( ironic, no?)   that prefers established standards – even if it means loss of quality or features – rather than exploring new formats ( Flash anyone ?). Websites publishers are unwilling to use anything that has not already be widely used elsewhere, which makes it extremely challenging to introduce anything new.

Lytro has announced today that it will migrate its image player to the more established webGL format supported by all the current web browsers. This should allow, in theory, an easier way for anyone to publish the resulting images produced by its camera. But that is not it. They also announced a partnership with photo hosting and marketplace 500px  which will make the platform easily display Lytro images. The move, while not surprising, seems like a missed shot. While popular with the pro-am (advanced amateurs) who like to share images, 500px has little to no penetration in the marketplace. Just recently launched with a baffling 70-30 revenue share ( 70% for the photographers), 500px has yet to make any impact on the image licensing business.  And it’s prospect are not good. Mostly because the image licensing business is currently dominated by a few marketing-heavy players, with budgets in the double-digit million of dollars, who have taken decades to build very strong relationship with customer base. 500px doesn’t offer anything new or compelling enough for image buyers to switch or even notice them. At best, 500px could hope to capture a slice of the blogging world, but that is not much.

So why did Lytro decide to work with 500px ?  A good portal to reach photo enthusiasts and turn them into customers of their cameras?  After all, they are the core target of their business. But as far as getting the image format accepted and used in the marketplace, this is a terrible move. A better approach would have been to make a deal with Getty or Associated Press.

Lytro Illum Light Field Digital Camera availability: Mid August 2014

Why ? For one, both could have introduce the cameras to pro-photographers who still remain key influencers in the photo space. Furthermore, they would have helped introduce the format to top publishers. This would have trickled down to pro-am users and enthusiasts who would have seen images taken by pros and used on tier 1 publisher sites. That is not going to happen with 500px.

Obviously it is not too late to change course. While partnering with 500px is not detrimental, it is certainly a questionable move, especially in a space that is seeing more and more players entering, either via hardware ( Nokia plans to launch a Light field capable cell phone this year) or display ( there are apps already available who can mimic the multiple point variable focusing attribute of  light field photography). While Lytro  has a first player advantage ( disadvantage ?) for some years now, they should be much more aggressive in taking market shares in this space if it wants to preserve their dominance. Going 500px is certainly not the right move.

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.

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