How Do You Beat the Smartphone Camera?

How Do You Beat the Smartphone Camera?

After more than a year of work, Rajiv Laroia was on the verge of a breakthrough. By the summer of 2014, with the help of five or so engineers, he’d developed a digital image-making system that could achieve the resolution, depth of field, and focus control of a clunky digital single-lens reflex camera (commonly known as a DSLR) in a device just a fraction of its size. At least that was the plan: Although they had the technology locked down, Laroia and his team still faced the daunting task of fashioning it into a product people would actually want to buy.

Laroia, now 54, and his business partner, Dave Grannan, 53, envisioned a product that would look “more akin to a smartphone or tablet than a DSLR, or even a point-and-shoot,” Grannan says. The camera, which they dubbed the L16, was to be the first product from Light, the company they’d founded. Even more than the technology involved—16 tiny lenses acting in concert by means of a unique computational-imaging process—the real achievement would be to create a standalone camera compact enough to carry around. The team asked themselves, “What are other things that have done what we’re trying to do here—take something traditional that hasn’t changed in a long time and reboot it?” recalls Light’s senior vice president for marketing and product design, Bradley Lautenbach. That’s when they thought of Fred Bould.

Bould’s biggest claim to fame is his work on the Nest thermostat, the revolutionary energy-saving smart home device that won raves from designers and users alike when it was released in 2011. Nest won the top award given by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and it was inducted into the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum not long after Nest Labs, the company that made it, was acquired by Google Inc. in 2014. The eponymous founder of Bould Design doesn’t have the name recognition of a superstar such as Apple Inc.’s Jony Ive or Swiss designer Yves Béhar, but his 10-person Silicon Valley company has become a go-to for entrepreneurs who dream of reinventing entire product categories.

Bould, 53, is soft-spoken and bald, and his standard-issue chunky glasses and black T-shirt make him instantly recognizable as a designer with minimalist leanings. His father was a mechanical and electrical engineer, and though Bould earned a master’s degree in product engineering from Stanford, his true interest was in applying that knowledge to the design world. More specifically, he wanted to call the bluff of people who responded to his design ideas by saying they couldn’t be done. “What you mean to say,” he recalls wanting to tell them, his tone more dry than arrogant, “is that you don’t feel like doing the engineering.”

Bould started his company in 1996, and in those days, software-obsessed Silicon Valley was even more resistant to manufacturing objects than it is now. For years he was essentially a solo practitioner, working on a mix of tech products and more traditional industrial design. In the early 2000s, Bould designed the Squeezebox, a streaming audio player created by the startup Slim Devices (later acquired by Logitech International SA). A few years later, in 2010, Bould got an email from Matt Rogers, a fellow graduate of his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University. Rogers wanted to meet with him to discuss a project idea for his new company, Nest Labs, which he’d co-founded with Apple veteran Tony Fadell. They asked Bould about his design process and knowledge of manufacturing, and then the next day they called to say they’d like to work with him. The whole process was “surprisingly straightforward,” Bould says. They worked together on various Nest products until the Google acquisition—Fadell calls Bould a “great partner”—at which point, Bould says, they parted amicably.

“A lot of thermostat makers were kind of phoning it in,” Bould says, cheerfully deflecting credit for the product’s success onto Fadell. “It grew out of a need.” Since then, he’s added designers and scaled up his company’s capacity, working on various versions of Roku Inc.’s digital-media streaming player and consulting on later models of GoPro Inc.’s Hero camera.

When the Light team approached him in 2014, Bould recalls, they “more or less came to us with a box of parts.” The only mandate: The device had to be pocket-size. “Today there are 1.5 billion people who have smartphones, and every one of them considers him- or herself a photographer,” Grannan says. “It’s grown the pool.” The ubiquity of the mobile phone camera, along with the parallel rise of social media, has made the device the dominant picture-making tool of our time. About 1.3 trillion digital images will be produced this year, estimates market-research company InfoTrends, a fourfold increase since 2010. But a phone camera’s technical limitations make it unsatisfying for a serious photographer. Most notably, its single tiny lens (or even the two lenses in the iPhone 7) limits a smartphone’s ability to zoom or capture decent images in low-light situations.

That’s where Light comes in. Laroia first got the idea for the L16 after his previous startup, a wireless telecommunications company called Flarion Technologies, was acquired by Qualcomm Inc. in 2006. He decided to take up photography in the free time he suddenly had, and though on formal expeditions he’d bring his DSLR gear—including a bag filled with pounds of lenses, flashes, and, from time to time, a tripod—he had to settle for his smartphone camera in more impromptu situations. Frustrated, Laroia started speaking to fellow photographers, who felt the same way. He was a novice at optics, but since the experts weren’t solving the problem, Laroia concluded he’d have to start looking into it himself.

So far, Laroia has attracted $35 million in funding from backers including Google Ventures and Charles River Ventures, which eventually introduced him to Grannan. As soon as the L16 became available for presale in October 2015, it attracted ecstatic camera-world buzz; the blog PetaPixel called it “a revolutionary new point-and-shoot camera that aims to transform the way we think about cameras.” Although priced at $1,600—three times as expensive as most entry-level DSLRs—the L16 reached its investors’ 30-day sales target in about 30 hours. The company has declined to specify what that figure is, but Light representatives have indicated it’s in the neighborhood of at least $10 million.

As with any boundary-breaking product, the L16 went through a number of design iterations. The first thing casual observers will notice about it is the curious collection of circles on its outward face—the lens modules. “Often with technology products, designers spend a great deal of time trying to hide that kind of thing,” Bould says. Instead of disguising this weird array with darkened glass or rearranging the components in a more visually pleasing pattern, he left these technical guts unconcealed, treating them as a design feature rather than a flaw. Bould displays an early foam model: a rectangular object with a bunch of cones protruding from the front, each representing the scope of field the lenses capture. One of the biggest challenges of designing the L16 was figuring out how to get people to hold the thing without blocking this array, which meant focusing not only on what the object looked like but also on what it felt like.

As convenient as smartphones are, Bould points out, they remain awkward for taking pictures. “Probably there are 10 people dropping their phones as we speak,” he says. Anson Cheung, Bould’s studio director, hauls out a big crate full of later models of the L16 printed on the company’s rapid-prototyping machine. Earlier versions were more sharp-angled and boxy. When the designers—five in all, fully half of Bould’s design team—noticed users wrapping their fingers over the corner to reach the shutter-release button, they smoothed the hard angles into rounded contours to make the grip more natural. Later still, they added a gentle depression along the bottom for the thumb. Most of the camera’s body is metal for durability, but the designers covered the edges where the fingertips touch the device with a thermoplastic rubber that’s warmer. Taken together, these elements mimic the feel of holding a traditional camera, encouraging users to grip it with both hands.

Although the presale period vastly exceeded Laroia and Grannan’s expectations, aspects of the production process for the L16 have been less successful. “The hardest thing about being a Silicon Valley hardware startup is getting Tier 1 manufacturers to take your business,” Grannan says. Many top factories only take orders in the millions of units from established giants, not in the thousands from startups. Chinese megafactory Foxconn Technology Co. eventually agreed to handle final assembly, part of an arrangement that included a small investment in Light and an agreement to license a subset of the L16’s technology for use in smartphones. The resulting products won’t match the L16 for quality, but they will noticeably raise the baseline smartphone-photo image resolution.

The preordered L16s will finally start shipping this month, and Grannan is planning an aggressive push after that: taking new direct orders by May, then rolling out to specialty online sellers, mass online sellers, and ultimately brick-and-mortar retail by the end of 2017. But the camera’s design is still a work in progress—Bould will have to see what works and keep tinkering from there. “How can we really connect the new technology with the old user? Because users are all old,” he says with a chuckle. “We don’t get a new population every time we launch a new product. You have to work with preexisting behaviors.” Technology may be fast, but design is slow. “A lot of times what happens when new technology comes along, you’re tempted to say, ‘Well, let’s do everything new,’ ” Bould says. “It’s important to step back and say, ‘What do we want the experience to be?’ ”

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