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Artefact’s Markus Wierzoch, lead designer of the new Lytro Illum. (Artefact Photo)

Camera technology company Lytro is getting lots of headlines this week for its second-generation light field camera, called the Illum — a DSLR-style device that creates “living images” designed to be refocused after taking the shot.

As it turns out, the design of the new camera has roots in Seattle, at the Artefact product design and development company, and a team led by Artefact design director Markus Wierzoch.

A German with experience working in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Wierzoch is a designer by day with a wide variety of interests away from work. “I love both the outdoors and modern day urban life,” he says. “I adore old Porsche 911’s and well-designed bicycles, I like basketball, as well as soccer, and I have yet to decide what I love more – photography or cameras.”

Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questions, including behind-the-scenes details on the Lytro Illum design project.

Lytro-Blitzen-5What do you do, and why do you do it?

I am a Design Director at Artefact. I guide teams in the creation of meaningful experiences that people will love. I am a designer, not only by education, but was born one. I always “made things” – growing up I built my own toys, and bicycles, and a few decades later nothing much has changed, except for the fact that someone pays me for doing what I have always done.

What does the Lytro Illum represent for the evolution of photography, and what did it mean to you to be involved?

The digital age has caused a major shift in the photography industry. It has fundamentally changed who the major players in the industry are by wiping out film. It has taken photofinishing out of the lab and brought it into our homes. Since the cost per picture has been reduced to zero, the volume of pictures we take has increased by an order of magnitude which gives rise to new tools. Where we used to share pictures only in person, we now share them online.

Yet for all these changes, digital photography has not sparked the transformational change it could have brought for the photographer or the image. It has not dramatically changed how we take photographs and – other than replacing the medium – has not altered how we experience and interact with a picture. In the future, taking great photos will be facilitated by software that allows to capture a richer set of data and “select” things like focus, perspective, subject, and exposure after the fact. Features like creating a panoramic image many times larger than the camera’s sensor or shooting HDR images by taking and combining multiple photos with different exposures have proven the value of computational photography in recent years.

Lytro-Blitzen-81Lytro Illum is a terrific next step into the future of digital photography. The camera produces living images that viewers can touch to change focus or alter the perspective. On a physical level, the product acknowledges that the posture we assume when taking photos has changed with the advent of mobile photography. Illum is meant to be held a foot away and slightly below the photographer’s eye and the camera’s distinct angled display facilitates that.

Having always dreamt about being able to help shape the future of photography, I am incredibly excited about Illum and cannot wait until I get mine!

What was the biggest challenge faced in designing the Illum, and how did you and the team overcome it?

When Lytro introduced its first light field camera, media proclaimed that photography is changed forever and investors embraced the promise of computational photography. And while that product unleashed photographers’ imaginations, its small sensor and unique form factor just scratched the surface of the possibilities of light field photography.

With better optics, a better sensor and improved computational capabilities, Lytro Illum pushes the boundaries of computational photography. Since it is intended to bring computational photography to the experienced and sophisticated photographer, we had to find the perfect balance between the new and the familiar.

Illum is a serious camera for the serious photographer, and at the same time it also introduces a new paradigm. While the technology and output are very new, many of the traditional conventions hold, and drive user expectations. Illum is meant to be a “photographer’s camera”, one that offers sufficient manual control over the capture experience and thus helps to create great content. That is why we deliberately designed a user interface that puts the display front and center and integrates it with a carefully chosen set of physical controls.

What’s your favorite feature or design element of the product?

I love how the camera feels great in your hand, yet still manages to look precise and simple.

Today’s camera designs prioritize either ergonomics or a minimalist appearance. In the former case, the resulting products often lack visual appeal, whereas cameras with simple geometry need to be accessorized to make up for their shortcomings in the areas of usability and handling. Lytro Illum manages to balance the two aspects of design, resulting in an elegant, distinctive and timeless product that is delightful to use and a pleasure to look at.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? (The long-term potential, surprising applications, a misconception debunked, etc.)

Designers are not artists. Design is utilitarian in the sense that it aims to solve problems in a way that art is not.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

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Where do you find your inspiration?

My main source for inspiration is in stories, big and small. I love listening more than talking and fresh thoughts, different points of views and an open conversation are what give me the best ideas, whether that is a clever montage of iconic movie scenes or the touching account of a brief moment in a photographer’s life, these stories always manage to find their way into my design work. One of the things that inspired me while working on Illum were the beautiful images that a Russian mother took of her children growing up on her farm.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?

I don’t think I’d want to live without the drinking water system we have in the developed world… we are taking washing basins, showers, and dishwashers for granted, but if you think about about it, isn’t it magic that you can have access to the source of all life with a turn of your wrist?

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you?

I have a standing desk and love it, because it allows me to quickly move about and interact with others. It may sound like a stereotype, given my origin, but it is meticulously clean, except for materials needed to accomplish the one task I am working on at the time… this helps me to focus and be efficient. I find being organized allows me to be creative.

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Your best tip or trick for managing work or life? I try to do what my wife tells me to as much as I can… I don’t always manage this, and this is typically when bad things happen.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I prefer the Mac, but don’t mind Windows, either. Does admitting that I never really really tried Linux disqualify me as “Geek of the Week”?

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Kaaaaaahn!” – do I need to say more?

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? With my family living in Asia and Europe and me living in the States, I’d love to have access to a transporter.

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If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup … I would fund a non-profit organization that would use the power of technology and design to improve the lives of those that that need it most. That is one more reason that Artefact is a good place for me. While we cannot afford to invest a million, we are really excited to work on and invest in projects that lead to a better future — wether it is client work like PATH or our own explorations like Juice Box.

I once waited in line for… The iPad 3. As I approached the end of the queue in the rain, an Apple Store employee clad in a blue t-shirt asked “Are you here for the line?” My response “No, I’m here for an iPad” made her blush and generated a few smiles in the otherwise somewhat miserable crowd…

Your role models: I don’t have a single role model, but admire facets of many persons: My mum’s youthful spirit, my granddad’s straightforwardness, Michael Jordan’s ability to execute, Steve Jobs’ technology vision, Bill Gates’ big-picture-thinking,…

Greatest Game In History: Another not Geek of the Week response: “The Miracle of Bern” – Germany beating Hungary 3:2 in 1954 for their first World Cup victory, which lifted the spirits of an entire nation. The German TV commentary gives me goose bumps, even though the game was played a few decades before I was born.

Best Gadget Ever: The first iPod I owned – it was the 2nd generation device in 2002. Not only did it change the way I listened to music, it also taught me that when carrying gadgets in a waterproof backpack during a downpour, one best not leaves the top flap open.

First Computer: I got a Sinclair ZX81 kit in 1985. It recorded data with an audio tape recorder and had a built-in RAM of one kilobyte. The 16 KB RAM extension box had to be plugged into the product’s back and was somewhat finicky. It crashed the computer consistently when it wobbled in its connector… and that was when I learned to frequently save my work.

Current Phone: iPhone 5

Favorite App: Evernote – I use it every day.

Favorite Cause: NEEDS is a non-profit organization in Northeastern India that my wife worked for in 2011 – I helped them a little bit during my brief visits and have very fond memories of the people there and the great work that they do to improving lives in their local community.

Most important technology of 2014: Drones. From Barack Obama to Jeff Bezos, to my colleagues: Everybody suddenly seems to have one. I want one, too.

Most important technology of 2017: A switch that will allow us to disconnect entirely from the technology around us, including the drones that I will probably hate at that point.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Picasso said: “Every child is an artist. It’s a challenge to remain an artist when you grow up.” I disagree — I think it is easier to remain artists than we think, if we decide to try.

Previously on GeekWire: Lytro’s new angle reflects the future of photography.

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