The cameras in our phones, laptops and more and more home robots and the like are as small as they can get unless we start doing something else, and that’s exactly what metalz comes to fruition – with great success and now a $30 million round of funding to expand its ultra-small 3D imaging technology.
The startup emerged in 2021 with a fresh take on cameras that essentially abandons the approach we’ve been using for decades, basically “a normal camera and lens but small.” Instead, it uses a complex but nearly 2D surface to capture light passing through a single lens, allowing the entire unit to be a fraction of its size. It’s not meant to take clear, ordinary images, but to provide the kind of extra information those cameras need – depth, object and material recognition, and so on.
We’ve seen things like this before, but mostly in university research labs showing one-off prototypes. But Metalz’s camera technology can’t just be manufactured – they already ship millions of orders.
If you’re wondering “wait, why haven’t I heard of it before?” think about it – did you know who made your phone’s camera, let alone the front depth sensor? Not just Apple, not Samsung, not Google – they all use someone else’s lens and sensor stack, companies like Sony Imaging and Omnivision integrating their camera component with a board maker, who resells it to the big boys.
Coincidentally, one of these integrators, called STMicroelectronics, was looking for a better camera to equip a class of image processing boards that it has shipped more than a billion units over the years. They looked at whatmetaalz had to offer and basically said “great, how many can you make? We’ll buy that song.”
“For a startup, getting that first project out is a huge hurdle,” Founder and CEO Rob Devlin told australiabusinessblog.com. “This year alone, we expect millions of devices to go to various consumer applications.”
While Devlin couldn’t name any models, he said he could expect household names, with more devices in the works. In fact, they struck another big deal while I was writing this piece – a new buyer for the original imaging device that should hit the market in 2023 (although, again, he couldn’t name it).
“We actually have module designs right now that allow us to fit it into just about any form factor, even the ones that traditional cameras struggle with,” he continued.
The notch at the top of many phones these days is an annoying reminder of that fact. But Devlin said they hope to make that obsolete with the new “PolarEyes” technology that should speed up the funding round.
PolarEyes was announced earlier this year: essentially a camera that can read the polarization of light, allowing it to perceive different materials, textures and other properties that regular RGB cameras can’t, even with limited depth perception. One particularly promising application of the technology is facial recognition for phones.
The FaceID in iPhones may work well, but the downside is that it’s an expensive and complex near-field 3D detection module that takes up a ton of space on the top of the phone, essentially doing nothing 99% of the time. That’s Apple’s decision, and people will pay over a grand for their phones, but what about budget Android handsets that also ship in the tens of millions?
“We see a really strong bridgehead and market need to enable a much better and cheaper and thinner facial recognition solution outside the iPhone. The Android community and notebooks are looking for something that can do that,” said Devlin, and ametaalz PolarEyes model has what they are looking for.
Not only is it much cheaper than a forward-facing 3D sensor, but it’s also significantly smaller in every dimension — “half the price and half the thickness,” at least in the end, Devlin said.
It performs well on all the usual metrics, he claimed, although large-scale testing is still needed. Therefore, in the coming months, they will be shipping units to potential customers who are interested in the opportunity.
Testing and scaling up the PolarEyes product is where most of the $30 million in funding will go. The round was led by Neotribe Ventures, with the participation of (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.