Cameras in our phones, laptops, and increasingly home robots and the like are about as small as you can get unless we start doing something different, and that’s exactly what Metalz is developing — with great success and now $30 million in funding. To expand on ultra-small 3D imaging technology.
The launch appeared in 2021 with a new take on cameras, abandoning the approach we’ve used for decades, essentially “a standard camera and a lens, but smaller”. Instead, it uses a complex but nearly 2D surface to capture the light passing through a single lens, allowing the entire unit to be a fraction of the size. It’s not intended to capture plain, ordinary images, but to provide the additional information required by those cameras – depth, object and material recognition, and so on.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but usually in university research labs that show off one-off prototypes. But Metalenz’s camera technology isn’t the only one that can be manufactured – they’re already shipping millions of orders.
“Wait, why didn’t I hear it then?” In case you are wondering. Think about it — do you know who made your phone’s camera, let alone the front-facing immersion sensor? Not just Apple, not Samsung, not Google — they all use someone else’s lens and sensor stack, companies like Sony Imaging and Omnivision integrate their camera parts with a board maker and sell them to the big guys.
As it happens, one of these importers, STMicroelectronics, was looking for a better camera to equip its image board unit, which has shipped over a billion units over the years. They looked at what Metalenz had to offer and basically said, “Great, how many can you make? We buy that number.
“It’s a big hurdle for a startup to get that first project off the ground,” founder and CEO Rob Devlin told TechCrunch.
Although Devlin couldn’t name models, he said he expects more devices to be household names coming down the line. In fact, as I’m writing this piece, they’ve closed another big deal – a new buyer for the main imaging device that should hit the market in 2023 (although he couldn’t mention it again).
“Essentially, at this point we have modular designs, which allow us to assemble them in any way, even traditional cameras have trouble fitting.
The notch at the top of many phones these days is a sad reminder of that fact. But Devlin said he hopes to make that unnecessary with the new PolarEyes technology, which funding plans to accelerate.
PolarEyes was announced earlier this year: essentially a camera that can read the polarization of light, allowing it to understand different materials, textures and other qualities that ordinary RGB cameras can’t, giving it the ability to perceive depth. A particularly promising application of the technology is facial recognition for phones.
FaceID in the iPhone can work well, but the downside is that it’s an expensive and complex field-of-view 3D sensor module that takes up tons of space on top of the phone and basically does nothing 99% of the time. That’s Apple’s decision, and people pay big bucks for their phones, but what about the budget Android handsets that ship in the tens of millions?
We see very strong onshore and market demand to enable a much better and cheaper and thinner facial recognition solution outside of the iPhone. The Android community and notebooks are looking for something that can do that,” Devlin said, and the Metalenz PolarEyes model has what they’re looking for.
Not only is it cheaper than a front-facing 3D sensor, it’s also much smaller in all dimensions — “half the price and half the thickness,” at least in the end, Devlin said.
Although large-scale testing is still necessary, he says it performs well on all common parameters. That’s why they will be showing units in the coming months to meet customer demand.
Testing and expanding the PolarEyes product is where most of the $30 million in funding will be directed. The round was led by Neotribe Ventures, along with (big breath) Foothill Ventures, M Ventures, Intel Capital, Osage University Partners, TDK Ventures, 3M Ventures, Global Brains, SG Innovate, Baidu Ventures, Hegemon Capital and Braemar Ventures.