Creating Technology for Social Change

Light Fieldwork: Lytro Cameras, Open Research & the Partial

Lytro markets the images from its light field cameras as “living pictures.” This makes me think of the magical portraits from Harry Potter, their subjects managing door security and popping from frame to frame. (Not the photographs. Harry Potter photographs are pretty much anigifs.) “Living picture” is certainly evocative marketspeak, but it obscures what a fascinating methodological tool light field images can be—and the fresh questions about openness and participation in research such cameras provoke.

The following images were taken in Japan during the summer of 2013 with a first generation Lytro camera. They’re products of my first explorations with the camera; more images can be found at the Lytro gallery. Click different points in the images below to see the focus shift. There are other things you can do with the images, too ~ play! It’s okay, you won’t break them.

Mt. Fuji ~ Summer 2013

The key feature of a light field image is the capacity for a viewer to explore different focal points in an image after the image has been captured and presented. The flipside of this is that the image includes multiple perspectives that cannot all be viewed at once. It’s a bit like a hologram: the angle of view or focal point we choose both reveals and limits what we see. Partiality and incompleteness are in-your-face visible—and that’s awesome.

Recent years have seen the quest for the ultimate high-def display, accompanied more quietly by the privileging of the high depth-of-field image in device cameras. The implicit goal is to have everything, no matter distance of separation, in focus. This is part of a larger ideology of data capture that’s very trendy right now. (Yes, big data, I’m talking about you.) Our eyes don’t actually create such images unaided. Eye-tracking studies show we don’t absorb everything at once; our attention selects and travels. Universal focus lets us lie to ourselves, helps us hide from the partial and incomplete, helps us play at omniscience. We assemble wholes in our minds and pretend we’ve always seen them.

Asakusa grating ~ Summer 2013

Images from a Lytro camera deny us these lies. We see one focal point at a time—and we see it as one possibility among multiple. Each time we click on a different part of an image, we see that where we direct our attention changes what’s clear to us.

dragonfly, Imperial Palace gardens ~ Summer 2013

The technology is still in its early stages, but it offers provocative ways to explore worldview. To ask, How do we see the world? What do people choose to focus on? How does this differ across individuals? Across time? Does the you at 16 choose to focus on the same thing as the you at 32 and 64? How do different perspectives combine? Of course, images—and possible focal points—are necessarily limited by the selection choices of the photographer and the constraints of the technology. I’m not making the wildly utopian claim that light field images give us a perfect ability to see the world as someone else. This process is limited and constrained, but those limits and constraints are themselves productive. There are suggestive possibilities…

So, for example, a researcher could take a set of light field images—produced either by her or by participants—and ask participants to set the focal point to what they saw as most meaningful/important/unusual/traditional/whatever in the image. (Lytro software doesn’t currently support focus lock as a post-exposure feature, but selections can be saved as jpegs.) This allows not only comparison among participants, but also between participants and researchers, as well as among researchers. Participants could be: people in the images, people who inhabit the same spaces as the images, people who have no (other) direct connection to the images. (Researchers and participants are separated here solely for clarity; the latter category encompasses the former.) How different are worldviews at this basic visual level?

Asakusa sharehouse view ~ Summer 2013

For me, this emphasis on the partial and the incomplete also prompts questions about how we understand openness and participation itself.

There’s a lot of debate about what open means in the context of knowledge and information—open how, open to whom, etc. And there’s interesting work being done in terms of open research, not only in terms of quantitative approaches, but also qualitative approaches such as live fieldnoting and Instagram ethnography. Light field images offer a different angle on openness and open research. What if we think of openness in terms of the partial and incomplete? In terms of continuing interaction, future ambiguity, and multiple possible focal points? (What we might think of as classic grammatical aspect.)

Participation is another blurry concept, one that’s yielded productive approaches for decades. Think: participatory culture, participation frameworks, participant observation. Light field images alter the participant roles of viewer and photographer—and in doing so very visibly pry apart data and our experience of data. The passive viewer/audience member is, of course, a myth long since debunked. Still, with light field images a viewer can now select and explore in new ways, for the viewer can not only examine and interpret, but also investigate the limits and clarities of different focus points. The photographer, meanwhile, thinks differently about how to frame images, how to incorporate variable focus, how to create images that exist in conscious interaction.

Personally, transitioning from a DSLR to a light field camera has been more challenging than expected. I’m still experimenting—thinking a lot right now about how sequences of light field images might be used, and curious about the new Lytro Illum camera.

Sunrise on Mt. Fuji ~ August 2013

Got suggestions? I’d love to hear thoughts on other ways to use light field images—or other tools to experiment with—particularly in the context of open research.

~Amy (@shrapnelofme)

Cross posted on the MIT HASTS blog.