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.
HUD technology originally gained traction in the aviation and military realm — where it allows pilots and operators to view data directly in their field of vision. But 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 vehicle.
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 via the windshield, for example.
Or an animated navigation arrow could be displayed directly where a turn needs to be made.
Further and wider
Based in Milton Keynes, England, Envisics was officially founded in 2018, though the technology goes back much further. 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 developed what was touted as the world’s first laser holographic HUD for Jaguar Land Rover in 2014.
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.
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, and 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.
Through the looking glass
The global HUD market was pegged at $930 million in 2019, although this is expected to rise to nearly $2.5 billion by 2026 as more manufacturers adopt HUD technology and installation costs fall. Moreover, more people are becoming aware of the benefits holographic displays afford, with navigation and safety warning data projected into the driver’s direct field of vision.
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, and 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. This signals what could be the start of a major revolution in the deployment of AR-enabled HUD technology.
Ready for the next level of displays? The augmented reality head-up display (AR-HUD) of the new #SClass provides loads of #augmentedreality content for #drivingassistance systems and navigation information. #MercedesBenz #MBUX pic.twitter.com/LwGqGJvRjB
— Daimler AG (@Daimler) July 10, 2020
According to Christmas, Envisics’ display technology is unique in the way 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 had previously raised outside funding, Christmas said the company won’t be revealing how much it had raised or from whom. However, its current roster of big-name strategic backers suggests where its technology will ultimately end up. Hyundai Mobis has confirmed 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 at the same time. The car isn’t expected on the market until 2023, but today’s investment news indicates beyond a reasonable doubt that Envisics is providing the technology for this particular feature.