Light L16: The $65 Million Camera Failure - Krazy Ken’s Tech Talk
- Does this camera make you feel uneasy with all of its eyeballs staring at you? You might be experiencing trypophobia or formication and we should talk about that. But I also wanna discuss how this camera raised $65 million and still failed. What? Do I have something on my face? Hey everyone, how are you all doing? If you're new here, welcome. My name is Krazy Ken, and this is the Light L16.
Quite a freaky little thing, isn't it? That's what the doctor said about me when I was born. Anyway, let's find out how this thing raised $65 million in investments and failed. And to do that, we'll have to explore the company's history and then we'll take this thing out into the field and test drive it for ourselves. So like all good stories, this one starts with a ripped pair of pants. Light Labs was founded in 2013 by Dave Grannan and Rajiv Laroia, and the company specialized in digital photography. These guys are legit.
Dave was the former CEO of Vlingo and they developed an early virtual assistant on iPhone, and Rajiv was the CTO of Flarion, which sounds like a Pokemon, but it's not. It's the company that developed core technology for LTE cellular, and Qualcomm acquired them in 2006. And from 2011 to 2012, Rajiv was the CTO of Sonus Networks, which is an important connection and you'll see why soon. But Ken! Where are the pants you promised us? Oh yeah, sorry. So Rajiv was an amateur photographer and he had expensive cameras and lenses. He took a lot of photos with his DSLRs, but when smartphone cameras improved, he found himself using his phone camera more because it was always with him in his pocket.
Rajiv didn't like this because he was sacrificing the quality for the convenience, and as a fellow photographer, I understand the struggle. And allegedly, Rajiv's wife was getting upset at him because Rajiv kept shoving these big lenses in his pants pockets and he kept ripping his pants. And this is all according to Dave, by the way. So Rajiv thought, why not make cameras that can take high quality photos like a DSLR, but in a smaller package so it's easy to carry around. This is where Dave enters the picture. He was working with one of his prior investors at Charles River Ventures, and he was bouncing around some ideas.
Basically the folks at CRV said, this is brilliant, but I like this. The this being Rajiv's bundle of ideas. And guess what other company CRV's invested in, Sonus Networks. At that point, Rajiv and Dave came together with the power of friendship and some other things, and they formed Light. The goal, designed cameras that can fit into smartphones and other mobile devices, and use computational technology to create high quality images with true optical zoom, achieving a DSLR like experience all in a package that fits in your pocket. Yo, that sounds amazing. Sign me up.
From 2013 to 2015, Light raised $35 million in venture capital and brought on multiple executives. They also launched a simple website with a tagline, reimagine photography. And in April, 2015, Light unveiled a prototype of their first camera featuring 11 camera modules, and they rightfully patented the crap out of it. Then on October 7th, 2015, Light officially announced their debut camera product, the Light L16. And the hype started to grow for this new bug-eyed camera. So the L16 was slated to ship in late summer 2016 for $1,699.
Okay, that might be a tough sell, especially for consumers. Oh, it got bumped to 1,950 when it actually shipped. This is gonna be tricky. Thankfully, if you pre-ordered on the website through November 6th, you can get it for only 1,299.
Well, that's actually a really generous discount. In July, 2016, Light raised another $30 million in funding led by GV, Google Ventures, and that brings the total to $65 million bucks. Things were looking good for Light, but everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
And by Fire Nation, I mean shipping delays. The late summer 2016 shipping date now slipped to 2017. But bold new products can pose manufacturing challenges. They're doing things pretty much no one has ever done before.
So there was a custom chip inside of this camera and there was a production issue with that. So that's why the delays happened according to a spokesperson. I mean, fair enough, take the time to make it great because you only have that one shot to make a first impression and you don't wanna release a product that feels unfinished, right? Right? On July 14th, 2017, after almost four years in development, Light officially shipped the first L16 cameras to US customers.
As for EU and UK customers, they'd have to wait until March, 2018, sorry. So here it is, the long awaited Light L16. Let's dive in. The Light L16 features a minimalist slab design with a rubber grip. It weighs 15.6 ounces and is 0.94 inches thick. It features a five inch 1080p touchscreen on the back, and 16 camera modules on the front with a dual tone LED flash and built-in microphone.
The lens focal lengths are 28 millimeters, 70 millimeters, and 150 millimeters. Higher focal length equals higher optical zoom. There's also a laser-assisted auto-focus sensor and five proximity sensors to warn you if you accidentally block a lens with your finger.
On the top is a power button and a shutter button with a cool glowing ring, oh yeah, that looks pretty cool. And on the bottom is a mini jack from a mic, a USB-C connector for data and charging, a tripod mount and a Light accessory port. On the inside, L16 is powered by a Snapdragon 820 processor with a custom ASIC built by Light. That's an application specific integrated circuit, the fancy chip we were talking about earlier.
The L16 also features 256 gigabytes of flash storage, which could store only 1,300 photos, but these were raw photos. Yeah, the file sizes were huge and you'll see why. Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth were also built in.
The battery lasts for eight hours according to the advertising claims, and that's a reasonable number, I won't argue with that, but I can't fully test that on here because the battery has aged too much, so it wouldn't be a fair comparison. Also, I have no idea what these blank buttons are. They kind of look like they could be buttons, but they don't click and they don't trigger anything in the software. The manual also illustrates them, but it doesn't say what they are. L16 uses custom applications for the user experience, all built on top of Android as the core operating system. This particular L16 is running Light OS 22.214.171.124-118
on top of Android 6.0.1. In fact, if you swipe down from the top of the screen while in the camera, you get the Android buttons like on a normal smartphone and you can exit to the home screen. Now you can use the camera, kind of like a smartphone with other apps, even a web browser.
You'll see more of the LightOS UI throughout my testing but in summary, I think it's pretty clean and it looks good, and it even has tutorials built in, which is handy. So that's the breakdown of the L16 hardware and software. Now I'm gonna put it through its paces and see what it's really capable of. Fingers crossed. But before we do that, I wanna talk about something that's really important to me, charity.
I have partnered with Human-I-T to create the Computer Clan Giving Mission. And the goal is to give technology to people who are in need. Human-I-T believes technology is a right, not a privilege. And their organization works to provide underprivileged communities with tech products and training. And by doing so, as a bonus, they keep tech out of landfills and in the hands of people who actually need it. So here's where you come in.
For every 1 million views I get here on the Computer Clan YouTube channel, I will donate one Chromebook. Simple, 1 million views equals one donation. Let's make it happen.
Alright, let's test drive this freaky photo maker. (upbeat music continues) (camera shutter clicks) Wait, The Bean is closed. How do you close a bean? So much for taking photos there. Well, if you want some bean action, you can check out my Lytro episode. Anyway, I worked with my fellow camera friend, Brad, to stress test the L16.
We photographed animals, architecture, nature, and people. We shot in daylight and low light. I also conducted extra product photo tests in a controlled studio environment.
And after several days of testing, we wound up with 287 photos occupying 29.68 gigabytes of disk space. And we both came to one unanimous conclusion, this camera kind of sucks. I try to be optimistic and look for the good things, but I'm really struggling to think of anything good to say about this camera. Okay, the logo is hot. Okay, I like the logo, you get a point there.
For almost $2,000, you would think a sleek and somewhat freaky looking camera would be very capable, right? But it is riddled with issues. So let's investigate. The first big issue we noticed was unreliable autofocus. You can tap the screen to focus on a subject, like on a smartphone, but the L16 would sometimes miss the subject we were trying to shoot. Like these leaves for example, it's a pretty simple shot with no movement, but it still took three tries to shoot it in focus. Then we tried the shot of me and a tree at four different focal lengths, one try per focal length. And the autofocus only worked one time.
And this must have been a computational photography issue, but my face looks overly smooth in this 150 millimeter shot. So I do not recommend this camera for fast paced shots, like with animals. I tried 18 times to get an in-focus shot of these wolves and only one of them worked when the wolf was far away. This other photo is somewhat good, but the wolf's eye is slightly soft so by my standards, I would not count this as in-focus. The second problem is inconsistent color and texture accuracy.
So here's me in front of a lit Christmas tree. Shocker, the pictures are slightly out of focus with this icky digital film grain on there. But that aside, the white balance just changes randomly.
It's warm and then suddenly cold. This is not a Katy Perry song, it's a camera. And this Chicago deep dish pizza, oh my gosh, I don't even know what to say about this. I'm so sorry, Chicago.
It didn't look that bad in person. The camera just could not capture the color in low light at all, and it made it look like a turd, no matter how you spin it, this is a turd. As for texture, sometimes fine details in fur will look okay, but overly sharp and not too realistic. And sometimes they will look overly soft and some of the fine details are lost. It's due to computational photography.
Computational photography uses special software and algorithms to try to optimize the quality of a photo the best it can. And it has improved a lot over the years. But back when this was newer, it wasn't that great and yeah, I blame the computer.
The third problem is inaccurate live view. When you're trying to compose a shot, you're seeing a low quality, low resolution, fuzzy view of your actual photo, because when you're composing, only one of the cameras is feeding a video feed for the preview to the screen. And these sensors are tiny, so the quality's not gonna be that great. And it gets even worse when you're in low light because then the noise is all colorful and it's just dancing all over the screen.
And all of these quality problems will make it hard to compose an accurate shot. After you shoot a photo, the actual photo will be in higher resolution and it will be less noisy. But the L16 can't show a full quality version of the picture until it processes all the data from multiple camera modules. So you're not seeing an accurate representation of your shot in real-time, which makes it very difficult to manually change settings. It also means you're not seeing an accurate result after you take a picture. When you go to open up that picture you just took, you're still seeing that low resolution preview.
If you want to process a 13-megapixel good quality photo after you shoot it, you need to press the preview button. Thankfully, this can be done in bulk, but you still have to wait for the camera to process every single picture. It's worth mentioning L16 will process photos in the background while charging, but that doesn't do you any good in the field. And for what it's worth, you can process full resolution photos at 52-plus megapixels, but only on a computer with Lights Lumen software. Fourth problem, limited depth of field.
In lenses, there's an opening called an aperture, and the more open or wider the aperture is, the more shallow the depth of field is. And that's the effect that creates that beautiful background blur or that bokeh that you like to see in photos. But the L16 can't create that effect in many situations, which means a lot of your photo, if not all of your photo, is gonna be all in-focus at once and the background might be too sharp, when artistically, you'd probably prefer to be blurry. However, you can use the Lumen software to fake the depth of field, and I'll show you that soon.
Oh yeah, I have my own beefs with the Lumen software too. Another problem is bad performance. It's just kind of slow, overall slow. Not all the time, but sometimes it'll just randomly slow down. Sometimes the live view will play back at about 10 frames per second, which looks very choppy. And twice I received this, camera not responding, error message which totally interrupts your flow.
Next issue, the dynamic range is very low. The dynamic range of a photo is the ratio between the brightest pixel and the darkest pixel. Lower dynamic range will result in clipping, which is the unwanted effect of detail loss in shadows and highlights due to a part of the picture being too bright or too dark for the camera to capture. In L16 photos, shadows and highlights clip easily and detail is lost.
And the last big problem I have with L16 is zooming is slow. Which is kind of a bummer because that's one of the main features of this camera. Having the different focal lengths so you can optically zoom in to far away subjects.
But the software really hinders that experience. Sliding your finger up and down or pinching will adjust focal length but very slowly. There's a quick swipe shortcut which zooms into preset focal lengths, 28, 35, 75, and 150, but this gesture only worked about a quarter of the time. I have a lot of bad things to say about this camera, but they're all fair criticisms. But would you believe me if I said I have even more to complain about? The video quality. So this is the built-in video quality of the L16.
We're testing the picture quality, but also the sound. We're just using the built-in microphone. Nothing fancy. The weird thing is, even though there's tap to focus in the photo mode, there's no way that I can see to focus the video.
The video is completely automatic focus so I don't know, I might be blurry right now, I have no idea. But this is how it looks. This is how it sounds. Everyone, where do I even begin with this? That is the quality that a $1,950 camera gets you in 2017? There's no focus control, terrible dynamic range, macroblocking and compression artifacts out the wazoo. I mean, is there anything redeeming here? The video quality looks a little better in more even softer lighting like in overcast weather, but it's still shaky because there's no stabilization. Also, this wolf just wanted to steal the spotlight.
How rude. Sadly, this camera is riddled with issues, but the good news is we can maybe improve the quality of some of these photographs using the editing features in their Lumen software. But before we do that, we should understand how exactly this camera uses multiple camera modules to capture multiple pictures and stitch them together into a raw file format.
It is impossible to summarize the complex intricacies of the L16 into a short presentation. Light even said it would take a book to explain the full tech of the L16, and the technology is difficult to explain. The L16 uses multiple small lenses and sensors to create the effect of a single big lens and sensor. Five 28 millimeter lenses face the subject, and the five 70 millimeter and six 150 millimeter lenses run perpendicular to the subject and use a mirror to see the scene.
Every picture shot with the L16 is a fusion of multiple sub images. When composing, a single camera, referred to as the reference module, displays a preview on the screen. When the picture is taken, at least 10 cameras fire simultaneously. Each camera captures a 13-megapixel image, and some cameras are also measuring the distance of objects in the scene to generate depth data. These cameras also capture additional light to help reduce noise.
After the capture, the single camera preview is displayed on screen while other data is stored for processing. When processed, the hi-res photo is rendered by Light software, which fuses the sub images, and Lights computational photography algorithms will overlap and align the images appropriately. And the software will try and optimize the quality and perform a perspective correction so there's no distortion. The focal length setting or optical zoom will dictate what region of a scene needs to be captured.
And the L16 uses motorized mirrors to adjust the field of view for the 70 millimeter and 150 millimeter lenses. There's not a physical focal length for every level of zoom in the L16. So digital zooming or cropping will also occur at certain focal lengths. This will reduce the spatial resolution of the final composited image, but the image resolution will never go below 13 megapixels. All the sub-images, depth data and metadata are combined into a single .LRI, Light Raw File, which can be transferred to your computer with Lumen where high resolution processing, editing, and exporting can take place.
All right, let's try it out. Let's pop out the card. Oh yeah, this $2,000 camera doesn't have an SD card slot. So yeah, you have to plug the whole camera into your computer, neat. Or you can plug a storage device into the USB port on the camera and transfer your photos that way, whatever flutes your boot.
So this is Lumen. It runs on macOS and Windows. It's no longer updated, but this is the latest version, 126.96.36.1999 from 2018. And yes, it's always been in beta, and boy, it sure feels like it too.
When you connect your L16, you can import photos into your library. There is no library support for video so when you import video, it simply throws them into your file browser. Lumen lets you browse in thumbnail view and change sorting options, like by capture time. Wait, hang on. So the L16 has the ability to shoot in portrait and landscape. You can rotate the camera when you're shooting and the UI flips with it.
That's great, but when you import the photos, it doesn't automatically rotate the orientation? $2,000 people. Anyway, Lumen real capabilities are in the editing and processing features. Lumen will fuse multiple photos together into insanely large photos. The highest I achieved was 10,432 pixels by 7,824 pixels with the widest lens. This is an approximately 81.6-megapixel image.
What Lumen also does is it processes the depth data we talked about earlier so you can simulate a depth of field effect with your photos. Select a focus point and drag the slider. And it works okay-ish. Definitely not as clean as true optical DOF, but it's something. You also do get refinement controls if you need them.
But this effect doesn't always work. For some reason, I can't change the focus to this bird. I just get the Ghostbuster symbol. But the photo geek in me is really excited to try tone editing because in some of the photos, some things were a little bit overexposed and I wanna see if we can recover those details. Okay, let's see. Where can I adjust the highlights?
There's no curve editor, no level editor, no shadows, no highlights, what? Man, let me see if I understand this right, you use this amazing technology to capture all of this raw data from multiple cameras at once, and you fuse it into one raw file, but you don't give us away to edit that data. Okay, there's an exposure slider. That scares me though because that's just gonna brighten or darken the whole image as opposed to just the highlights.
But okay, let's try it with my shoes. Okay, we recovered the overexposed texture in the shoes, but now the whole image is dark and the whites in the shoes now have this ugly yellow color. Oh my gosh, Light, you're batting zero, man. You're a $2,000 camera and I really can't find anything redeeming about you. Thankfully, Lumen lets you export into DNG, which is a digital negative image file, and it stores raw data. And we can edit this raw data in a more powerful application like Adobe Lightroom.
I'll just choose the max settings and export. Here we go. Okay, this is taking longer than I expected, but I'm not gonna blame Lumen for that.
This is an older computer. In fact, it barely meets the minimum system requirements for the software so we're just gonna let it run for a bit. In the meantime, I think we should talk about the elephant in the room, and that's the L16s appearance.
This camera is probably most known for its very oddly spaced and sized holes on the front. And when you look at this, you might not feel anything, but you might feel a sense of discomfort or uneasiness. You might even feel a bit of an itch or like a crawling feeling on your skin. And if you do, that's totally okay. That's normal. You might be experiencing formication, trypophobia, or both.
Heads up, I will give a warning before I show an image which can trigger formication or trypophobia so it's safe to continue watching. The name formication comes from the Latin word, formica, which means ant. It is a tactile hallucination where you have the feeling of insects crawling in, on or underneath your skin, despite them being non-existent. Trypophobia, on the other hand, is a repulsion to objects that have a cluster or pattern of small holes or bumps. But keep in mind, according to the American Psychiatric Association, this is not an officially recognized disorder. So trypophobia is more likely disgust and not fear.
I'm going to show some examples so if you're susceptible to formication or trypophobia, please close your eyes and keep listening. When you hear a bell, you can open them. A bunch of these images used to circulate the internet, and I have no idea why, but they showed various holes in people's skin. These images are edits of real photographs were a lotus pod or perhaps some other holey thing is composited onto human skin. Okay, the evil images are gone for now, I'll warn you before they come back.
So why do these irregular hole and bump patterns create this weird feeling? It's important to note that formication is a symptom of some medical conditions. It's not just triggered by some icky weird internet images, but in the context of holes and bumps, there is no proven scientific connection between these visuals and formication. If trypophobia is recognized one day, maybe more research will be done.
But I will propose my theory which is based on associated learning. Our brains involuntarily perform many bodily functions, and some of these functions develop from life experiences. Like when we see delicious food, our mouths water because our brain is expecting us to eat soon. I theorize these images trigger unpleasant responses from our brain, based on life experiences. Okay, close your eyes again if you want, and keep listening. There's many conditions that cause discomfort and itchiness on our skin, like chickenpox, mosquito bites, acne and psoriasis.
What do all these conditions have in common? Irregularly sized and spaced bumps. I believe our brains see those patterns and thinks, wait, is that our skin? You should be feeling this irritation. You have in the past, why aren't you now? Why aren't you scratching? Do it. And I believe these Photoshopers realize this too, because many of these edited images show the whole patterns on skin.
Okay, icky images are gone. Let's check on Lumen. Alright, so the export took about two hours for 287 DNGs because Lumen has to fuse and process all the images before converting them into DNG files. But good news, now I can throw everything into Adobe Lightroom. And boom, we're able to recover the shoe texture without dimming the whole image, so the raw data is actually preserved quite decently. I also tried editing some low light photos and I still can't get a good result. I can only tweak the highlights and shadows so far until we see weird hotspots and artifacts.
Now I'll admit, I did do some further testing and I maybe found a little bit, little bit of redemption here. Some of the animal photos look passable, like this arctic fox picture. And even though there isn't a macro mode on L16, you can still photograph tiny subjects at a higher focal length and achieve a clean image with optical depth of field. I also tried some product photography in a controlled studio environment and the results were decent. But even those few good traits aren't enough to outweigh all of the problems with this camera, especially when you remember it cost $1,950. So what happened next after the L16? Well, Light never made a second generation so I think they even knew it failed miserably.
Light is a private company, so their sales numbers aren't public but the company did say their first month's internal sales goal was surpassed during the first two days of pre-orders. But in the end, it wasn't enough to justify a second generation. But it was apparently enough to get 121 million more dollars in a fourth and final round of investing.
First generation products don't always work out, but maybe the tech is good enough to help the investors keep the faith. Instead of a new L16, Light focused on smartphones. This seemed like a good move because multi-camera smartphone devices were already hitting the market, like the HTC One M8 in 2014, and the iPhone 7 plus in 2016. Light partnered with Sony to combine their tech with Sony's camera sensors. This collaboration debuted with the Nokia 9 PureView announced at Mobile World Congress on February 25th, 2019, priced at 699.
This phone again used the custom ASIC developed by Light, which they dubbed the Lux Capacitor. - The Flux Capacitor. - Sadly, the Nokia 9 PureView was the first and last phone Light was involved with. By the end of 2019, Light started pivoting away from photography and into imaging tech and AI for cars. And the L16 was officially discontinued by December, 2019. In May, 2022 portions of Light's assets, patents, IPs, and some staff were acquired by John Deere for an undisclosed amount.
And John Deere used this technology in automated tractors. But what remained of Light was dissolved shortly after. And the website shut down in July, 2022. So kind of a sad end for Light, but I do have to give props to Rajiv and Dave because they took a chance. They were bold and they were trying to reimagine a product in the face of possible failure. After Light, Dave and Rajiv moved on to other things.
Dave continues to be a board member at multiple companies, including Sense. Hey, I have one of your monitors in my box. Nice job. And Rajiv went on to co-found an AI company named More. So thankfully the founders are fine, and Light was somewhat salvaged.
But that still leaves us with one big unanswered question, how the heck did the $65 million L16 camera fail? Aside from the obvious stuff I pointed out. I think I clearly proved it's not a good product, but the true issues are rooted deeper than that. Sadly, the L16 was DOA because the concept was doomed from the start. And in my opinion, the big thorn in the L16 paw was the market positioning. Market positioning is the process of establishing a brand's image into a consumer's mind. And this image, this identity, is used to help differentiate one product from another.
And some of that worked. The L16s design, whether you think it's freaky or sleek or both, it stood out among the competition. But none of that matters if you're not aligning with your customers. You have to fulfill your customer's needs.
But you also have to be affordable to your customers. The L16 had advantages over a typical smartphone, no argument there. But at a $1,950 price point, it's unlikely a regular consumer is going to purchase one, especially since they already spent money on a phone which they carry around every day. And on the prosumer slash professional side of the spectrum, the L16 doesn't meet the quality capabilities of other DSLR products. And it lacks a card reader, removable battery and reliable firmware that prosumer and professional cameras have already had for at least a decade.
It was too expensive for consumers and too lackluster for pros. And I went back through my archives to see what other consumer cameras and smartphones were capable of, and despite them being older and way more affordable than the L16, I'd say their quality is comparable. iPhone 6 plus, 7, Motorola XT1575. Even this $400 Olympus 1030SW from 2008 has very good quality and it fits in your pocket and has optical zoom.
Oh my gosh, what kind of geeky motherfudger would wear that shirt? So L16 blew it by not aligning with customer needs. And for the customers that did buy one, I'm willing to bet, if they're anything like Brad and me, they didn't like the experience for very long. And at the end of the day, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. No one said reinventing a product would be easy, but when you wanna make that revolutionary new product, you gotta nail that sucker. Even though the L16 failed, there's still plenty of point and shoot cameras out there with optical zoom.
And the cool thing is, you can just walk down to the camera store, bust out your Ridge Wallet and buy one. I Love Ridge. I've been using it for the past few weeks because as much as I love my anime wallets, yeah, this one is starting to really wear away. It has seen better days.
Oh gosh, a piece of it just fell off. This poor wallet. Yeah, but the Ridge Wallet is just way more durable. The forged carbon and aluminum strength of the Ridge makes it more durable. And it's just so thin and sleek, way thinner than my last wallet. And it's more comfortable in my pocket too. And the Ridge KeyCase, so simple, yet so genius.
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(upbeat music continues) Say Swiss cheese. Get it? Swiss cheese, 'cause holes. Shut up.