image by Fred R. ConradRen Ng, chief executive of Lytro
But the wealth of raw light data comes to life only with sophisticated software that lets a viewer switch points of focus. This allows still photographs to be explored as never before. “They become interactive, living pictures,” Mr. Ng said. He thinks a popular use may be families and friends roaming through different perspectives on pictures of, say, vacations and parties posted on Facebook (Lytro will have a Facebook app).

For a photographer, whether amateur or professional, the Lytro technology means that the headaches of focusing a shot go away. Richard Koci Hernandez, a photojournalist, said that when he tried out a prototype earlier this year, he immediately recognized the potential impact.

“You just concentrate on the image and composition, but there’s no need to worry about focus anymore,” Mr. Hernandez said. “That’s something you do later.”

“That was the aha! moment for me,” said Mr. Hernandez, an assistant professor of new media at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is game-changing.”

Mr. Hernandez, who is not affiliated with Lytro, was one of several photographers who tested prototypes. His model, he said, was sheathed in a black plastic shell, so he did not see its design. But he said it was the size of a standard point-and-shoot camera. The picture resolution, he added, was indistinguishable from that of his other point-and-shoots, a Canon and a Nikon.

Eliminating any loss of resolution in a camera like Lytro’s, which is capturing light data from many angles, is a real advance, said Shree Nayar, a professor at Columbia University and an expert in computer vision. Mr. Nayar is familiar with Mr. Ng’s work, but he said he had not seen anything Lytro has done in more than a year.

“If they have been able to recover most of the lost resolution, then their image refocusing application is a very cool feature,” Mr. Nayar said. “But it is an open question how popular it becomes.”

At Lytro, the view is that the technology, once it gets into people’s hands, opens the door to many possible new features and uses. Among its other advantages, the new camera is much faster than conventional ones because there is no “shutter lag” — waiting for the autofocus device to work and the shot to be taken. Those fractions of a second, of course, are often when the dog darts off or the child’s smile becomes a frown.

Lytro cameras can also capture plenty of data for 3-D images, which can be viewed on a computer screen with 3-D glasses.

Lytro is not saying what the price of its first camera will be, but insists it will be for the consumer market, which suggests a price of a few hundred dollars. The company is also not being more precise about when the camera will ship. It will initially be sold through online retailers like Amazon.com and Lytro’s Web site.

But to gear up, the company is rapidly adding to its 45-person staff in Mountain View, Calif. Its recruits include veterans of Microsoft, Google, Apple, Intel and Sun Microsystems.

One Lytro convert who caught the attention of the Valley digerati was Kurt Akeley, who joined the company last September from Microsoft Research. Mr. Akeley, 53, was one of the early engineers at Silicon Graphics, a pioneer in computer graphics, and is one of the lead developers of OpenGL, a popular set of graphics programming tools.

Mr. Akeley, a consulting professor at Stanford, was familiar with Mr. Ng’s work and said he was lured by the challenge and technical opportunity. Lytro, Mr. Akeley said, has “a powerful technology with legs — great things can happen.”

Lytro chose to design and market a camera itself, instead of licensing its technology to a camera giant like Canon or Nikon. It will farm out the manufacturing to a company in Taiwan, but it wanted to control the details of the camera itself — much as Apple does.

“We can just make a better product this way, and really show what we can do,” Mr. Ng said. “The big camera makers are mostly polishing existing technology, and we didn’t want to do this in an incremental way.”

You're gonna want to play with this image....and then with this camera. Keep up to date with specifications, release dates and, of course, pricing as they come available at the Lytro blog.