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IMS Research predicts that image quality will be the new battleground for camera manufacturers in 2013. Image quality covers a very broad number of factors and features that go into capturing and displaying image data.

This should make for a very interesting year. We may see different manufacturers experimenting with new lenses, image sensors, and compression algorithms. However, what I would like to see is a manufacturer that dares to mainstream a completely different type of technology: plenoptic cameras.

These cameras (also known as light field cameras) use image sensors with multiple lens arrays to capture all available light. Put simply, this allows users to focus images after they have been captured.

Plenoptic cameras have been around for several years but have had a very difficult time gaining any real traction in mainstream electronics. The costs associated with these cameras (and the complex software and processing power required to edit such images) made them difficult to market. But that changed in 2012 with the Lytro plenoptic camera, which captures images at a size of approximately one megapixel. Focus can be adjusted after the fact on the camera or on a computer using special software (you can try this out for yourself by clicking on the picture below).

This picture shows the capabilities of light field cameras

Ren Ng, Lytro’s inventor, has redesigned the plenoptic camera to greatly reduce the cost. By creating an almost watered down version of commercial-grade plenoptic cameras (like those manufactured by Raytrix), Ng has been able to make these cameras fun but functional household gadgets.

Though Lytro has enjoyed great success in the consumer market, the most valuable uses for such technology reach far beyond consumers.

Re-investigating old images
The possible uses for plenoptic cameras in surveillance are limitless. Focus is just the start; plenoptic cameras collect enough light data to recreate 3D models of suspects. They can even slightly alter the viewing angle of an image after it has been captured.

Think of what science has done for DNA. As technology has improved, scientists have been able to apply new tests to old samples (just ask Lance Armstrong). The same is possible for images captured using a plenoptic camera. As software improves, new processing techniques can be applied to old images. Lytro recently added perspective shift (through a software update), which users can now apply to old Lytro images.

If the race for pixels is over and image quality is the new challenge, I think it is time for manufacturers to start exploring truly unique offerings like plenoptic technology. If Lytro can create a consumer-level camera for $400, video surveillance manufacturers can surely create an affordable plenoptic surveillance camera in 2013.

Light field technology is undoubtedly the future of imaging, but is there a manufacturer in our industry brave enough to take on the challenge?

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