DigiLens raises $25M, partners with Continental to put augmented reality displays in their cars

DigiLens creates AR displays for applications that include airplanes and motorcycle helmets

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
May 17, 2018
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For all the buzz that augmented and virtual have been getting for the past few years, especially with devices like Google Glass and the Pokemon Go phenomenon creating big headlines, the truth is that both of them are still fairly nascent technologies in a potentially huge market. According to Digi-Capital, the AR market alone could approach three and a half billion installed base and $85 billion to $90 billion revenue within just five years.

The companies that are going to win in the space are the ones make big strides right now, right before it explodes in a big way. That includes DigiLens, a provider of waveguide technology that allows the augmented reality to be projected on their displays.  

On Thursday, the company revealed that it raised $25 million in Series C funding from Continental, which Chris Pickett, CEO of DigiLens, described as "the world’s largest head-up display maker for automotive." Continental first invested in DigiLens in 2016 and now owns 18 percent of the company.

With this funding, DigiLens has raised $60 million, but the Series C is still open and the company plans to close another $25 million in the round in the coming months. 

Along with the funding, it was also announced that Thorsten-Alexander Kern, Head of HUD Product Development at Continental’s business unit Instrumentation & Driver HMI, has joined the board of directors at DigiLens.

"Thorsten has up until this point, since our Series B, when Continental initially invested, been a board observer, so we know him very well. He is the head of product development for Continental's head-up displays, he's an incredibly knowledgeable person in the automotive sector. He knows what the head-up displays are being used for now and what they're going to be used for in the future," said Pickett.

"Really, what we have is somebody who is a visionary in terms of where the technology is going, and he's very well connected also with the automotive OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), as is Continental, so he'll be able to help us make those automotive connections that will be critical, not only for Continental's business, but our business as well."

Founded in 2003, DigiLens' displays as used by companies in the automobile, avionics, retail and architecture spaces.

For example, the company has a head-up display in production right now with Rockwell Collins in the cockpit of airplanes, such as the Embraer private jet, which has been approved by FAA. The display allows pilots to fly in bad conditions where visibility might be limited. 

DigiLens displays are also in helmets designed for BMW that have a digital layer in front of the driver's to show their speed and a map, even who is calling them, so they can be hands free while on the road. The displays are also used in glasses, though Pickett points out that its technology is different than that used in a device like Google Glass. 

"It’s sort of like Google Glass except that, in that case, it was a prism that sat above your eye so that you would have to actually look up and into it. In this case, these lenses are right in front of your eye and they’re like you wear your regular glasses. The digital information is just presented in front of the eye in a very natural way," he said.

"Also, because you can see directly through it, and because we’re extremely efficient at transferring the light from the projector to your eye, we don’t need to darken the glasses at all for you to see that digital layer, whereas with some of our competition where that’s required. With the competitors it’s dark all the time, so it’s literally like you have to walk around with sunglasses on all the time, whereas our lenses are completely clear because we’re extremely efficient at transferring the light."

With this latest funding announcement, DigiLens has entered into a partnership with Continental to jointly develop a waveguide head-up display for their cars.

While DigiLens can make screens of any size, these are the largest ones yet; the demo the company showed at with Continental at CES earlier this years was four times the size of any head-up display in production today, with more than 10 times less volume under the dash.

"The first iteration for it will be a head-up display for the driver. It will be a large display that is embedded into the dash and it reflects off of the windshield towards the driver. The driver will see more than just what’s being displayed in today’s head-up displays; today’s head-up displays things like speed and what gear you’re in and things like that," Pickett explained.

"This will be broad enough for you to see things like there’s a full color arrow or a set of information like a set of arrows that will tell you where to go that are within your line of sight. There are the attractions around you that you maybe want to go see, like where the closest sushi restaurants are. The sensor network that will be built into the car that can display that up on the display will be able to show you things like where the people are located so that you don’t run somebody down, maybe the people are colored in red to allow you to see them better. Things like that."

Because DigiLens displays don't have to be dark for users to see the digital layer, there isn't a safety risk in putting them in front of a driver's eyes, he said. Also, what the driver sees is designed to not take their eyes off the road.

"You have to design what’s being displayed in a way that’s not distracting. You’ll want to put the information, instead of looking like the information is reflecting off windshield, it will actually look like it’s projected past the windshield onto the feature set that you’re looking at. For instance, navigation arrows will either be projected out at infinity or out at some distance so that they’re in context of what you’re looking it. You won’t actually just be looking through a digital layer, it will laid down and it will be in context."

You can see an example how objects are shown in DigiLens displays below:

DigiLens doesn't manufacture the displays itself; instead it licenses out the material and the process to companies who then make them for their specific industry.

"Our process has two components: one is the material set itself, and the second is the process for making the display. Those are the two things that we license out to manufacturers. We provide the material for them to make the display and then we get a pre-unit royalty from them for the sales of each display to their customers, which would be OEMs," said Pickett.

Licensees include Taiwanese optics company Young Optics, as well as Rockwell Collins, which uses them on private jets, and Continental. The reason the company chooses to go this route is because of how big augmented reality will eventually be.

"The reason we are licensing out is because the augmented reality markets, over time, are so large and so varied that there’s no way you could build a factory big enough. We’re already in avionics, with Rockwell Collins; military, with Rockwell Collins; industrial and enterprise with Sony; automotive with Continental; and consumer with a couple of other guys. So you just couldn’t build a factory big enough to fulfill the promise of the size of the augmented reality markets," he said.

"Instead, what we’re doing is building up capacity in the contract manufacturing sites that the OEMs want to go already. That’s where they go to now. So we’re basically going to build our capacity up there and then we’ll have capacity around the world as the augmented reality markets start to really mature in a variety of different markets. Continental will build up their capacity, Rockwell Collins will build up their capacity, Young Optics will build up its capacity, and so on."

DigiLens will use this new funding to build out its team, going from 68 employees to around 90 by the end of the year.

"We’re going to use this money to hire for both R&D purposes and advanced manufacturing purposes, and then get a support network around where our licensees are so we can an effective job of not only transferring the technology to them, but also maintaining them as customers and then bringing them up to make sure they can make major volumes," Pickett said.

He believes that augmented reality will soon bring change to a wide swath of sectors, including consumer, industrial, enterprise, automotive, medical, military, avionics and will make people much more productive in a variety of different applications, by allowing them to be hands free.

"In terms of a head-up display for a vehicle, it’s going to allow you to see the information in a much more intuitive way. You’re driving around now, you’re looking down at your screen or your navigation system, as opposed to keeping your eyes on the road. Frankly, in a few years from now, when everybody’s got an autonomous car, the windows are likely going to be displays because you don’t necessarily just need them to be windows anymore, and our technology can not only give the driver a head-up display, but it can give all of the passengers head-up displays in the windows around them," he told me.

"In five years, I want to see this company delivering the technology that really drives how people visualize the world and the data that’s overlayed on that world. From our perspective, as our licensees bring out higher volumes of capacity, our job is to develop the next generation of nanomaterials and processes to allow our licensees to build better and better displays, more immersive displays, that can make people more productive."

(This story has been updated with a more recent estimate from Digi-Capital)

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