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Envisics raises $50 million to bring AR holographic displays to car windshields

Envisics, a U.K.-based startup developing augmented reality (AR) holographic head-up display (HUD) technology for cars, has raised $50 million in a series B round of funding from a host of automotive giants, including Hyundai Mobis, General Motors’ VC arm GM Ventures, and China’s SAIC Motors’ investment offshoot SAIC Capital.

While HUD technology originally gained traction in the aviation and military realm, allowing pilots and operators to view data directly in their field of vision, it has increasingly made its way into the automotive sphere, with the likes of BMW embracing HUDs to display things like speed and directions in the windshield. However, most modern HUD systems offer fairly basic graphical functionality with a limited field of view (FOV) that places images near the front of the car — basically as a secondary display for information already visible elsewhere in the car.

With AR-enabled HUDs, cars can overlay graphics that interact with real-world objects and leverage vehicle sensor data. In real terms, this means a car’s driver assistance system can move beyond audible alerts and flashing symbols to highlight a potential hazard on the road ahead via the windshield, for example. Or an animated navigation arrow could be displayed directly where a turn needs to be made, which is where Envisics comes in.

Above: Envisics’ AR head-up display with navigation

Further and wider

Based in Milton Keynes, England, Envisics was officially founded in 2018, though the technology predates that by quite some time. After completing his Ph.D. in Real Time Holography For Displays at the University of Cambridge in 2009, Jamieson Christmas cofounded a technology startup called Two Trees Photonics that went on to develop what was touted as the world’s first laser holographic HUD for Jaguar Land Rover in 2014.

A big selling point of this was that the laser holography promised better color, brightness, and contrast compared to other systems on the market while negating the impact of sunlight glare on LED-based systems.

Above: Two Trees Photonics’ technology was used by Jaguar LandRover

Two Trees Photonics sold more than 150,000 units, and in 2016 it was acquired by Los Angeles-based Daqri, a company that built enterprise-grade AR headsets. Less than two years later, Daqri decided to spin out the holographic and automotive team into an independent company “to continue the work started by Two Trees Photonics,” as Christmas puts it. On January 1, 2018, Envisics was born. The following year, Daqri was shuttered for good.

Fast-forward to today, and Envisics has secured the backing of some of the automotive industry’s biggest companies to help bring the next generation of its HUD technology to market, which Christmas said the team expects to happen in 2023.

Unlike the first version that appeared in Jaguar Land Rover vehicles, the new incarnation not only displays virtual instrument clusters 2.3 meters from the drive, it also promises to augment the driver’s view of the road — covering three lanes across and up to 100 meters into the distance.

Dashboard_Automatic-cruise-control

Above: Envisics holographic display

Through the looking glass

The global head-up display market was pegged at a $930 million industry in 2019, though this is expected to rise to nearly $2.5 billion by 2026, as more manufacturers adopt HUD technology and the installation costs fall. Moreover, as awareness grows of the increased benefits afforded by holographic displays, with navigation and safety warning data projected into the driver’s direct field of vision, this will also increase demand in the consumer realm.

Envisics isn’t alone in its endeavor to bring AR HUDs to millions of cars around the globe. Swiss startup WayRay is working on similar holographic technology for vehicles, and back in 2018 the Zurich-based company raised $80 million from Porsche, Hyundai, Alibaba, among others.

Mercedes-Benz also recently announced that it would be the first automaker to feature AR HUD technology in a production vehicle, starting with the 2021 S-Class, signalling what could be the start of a major revolution in the deployment of AR-enabled HUD technology in the mainstream.

 

According to Christmas, Envisics display technology is unique in the way that it “electronically manipulates the speed of light to create true holographic imagery” in three dimensions.

“This approach has a significant number of benefits, including class leading resolution, ultra-wide color gamut and significantly lower power consumption, and the ability to create multiple images at different distances simultaneously,” he told VentureBeat.

While Envisics has previously raised outside funding, Christmas said the company wouldn’t be revealing how much it had previously raised or from whom. However, the roster of big-name strategic backers is indicative of where its technology will ultimately end up, with Hyundai Mobis confirming that it will jointly develop “autonomous driving-specialized AR HUDs” with Envisics, with plans to enter mass production by 2025.

Earlier this year, GM’s Cadillac also teased a new car called Lyriq, which sports a dual-pane HUD capable of displaying two images at different depths on the windshield at the same time. While the car isn’t expected on the market until 2023, in light of today’s investment news we now know beyond reasonable doubt that Envisics is the technology provider for this particular feature.

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