Google bought Lytro, an imaging startup that developed a distinctive camera before pivoting to imaging technology for virtual reality (VR) applications, TechCrunch reported. The price for the company ranged from $25 million to $40 million after it was shopped around to companies such as Facebook.
Lytro has 59 patents related to digital imaging, such as light-field technology that creates a composite picture from different angles so that 2-D pictures look more like 3-D. The technology also can be used to focus on one object while leaving out the background as an alternative to green screens.
Lytro was founded in 2006 by Ren Ng, whose doctoral research on light-field imaging won Stanford’s prize for best thesis in computer science, per Lytro’s website. The company later created a light-field technology for VR and cinematic content.
Google is beefing up its camera-related technology as camera-based experiences become a bigger part of consumer experiences. Google’s acquisition of Lytro, while not independently confirmed, comes as the search giant experiments with technologies for immersive photography in VR and ways to capture images using multiple cameras linked together. Google this month showed off a free Welcome to Light Fields app that shows the company’s vision for the future of truly immersive, lifelike VR, per MIT Technology Review. The app will be available through the video-game platform Steam, and is meant to work with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Windows mixed-reality headsets.
Lytro was launched with a promising technology as the entire imaging industry was being upended with the introduction of smartphones that have largely replaced camcorders and cameras. The camera has become a key selling point for mobile devices, especially as Apple, Samsung and Google try to outdo each other with each new generation of smartphone, and with the popularity of social media apps like Facebook and Instagram for sharing pictures. The startup raised more than $200 million in venture capital funding and was valued at about $360 million in a funding round last year 2017, according to PitchBook data cited by TechCrunch. Lytro’s investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Foxconn, GSV, Greylock, NEA and Qualcomm Ventures.
Google may be able to find plenty of applications for Lytro’s technology in the development of augmented reality (AR), which has become more accessible to consumers with the popularity of smartphones and the development of AR platforms by Apple and Google in the past year. While VR technology has seen a slower adoption because of its expensive hardware requirements, Google appears committed to developing its imaging technology as AR and VR become more popular.