Cameras in phones and laptops and home robots and the like are pretty much as small as they can get unless we start doing something different, and that’s exactly what Metalenz is making — with great success and now a $30 million funding round to expands ultra-small 3D imaging technology.
The startup emerged in 2021 with a new take on cameras that abandons the approach we’ve been using for decades, basically “a regular 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 the size. It’s not intended to capture clear ordinary images, but to provide the additional information these cameras need — depth, object and material recognition, etc.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but usually in university research labs presenting individual prototypes. But Metalenz’s camera technology isn’t just buildable—it’s already shipping millions of orders.
If you’re wondering “wait, why didn’t I hear that then?” think about it — did you know who made your phone’s camera, let alone the front-facing depth sensor? Not just Apple, not Samsung, not just Google — they’re all using someone else’s lens and sensor stack, companies like Sony Imaging and Omnivision that integrate their camera element with a board manufacturer, who sells it to the big guys.
As it happens, one of those integrators called STMicroelectronics was looking for a better camera to power a class of imaging board that has shipped more than a billion units over the years. They looked at what Metalenz had to offer and basically said “great, how many can you make? We’ll buy that number.”
“For a startup, getting that first project out there is a huge hurdle,” founder and CEO Rob Devlin told TechCrunch. “This year alone we expect millions of devices to be released in various consumer applications.”
While Devlin couldn’t name models, he said to expect familiar names, with more devices to come. In fact, they locked down another big deal while I was writing this piece — a new buyer for the original display device that should hit the market in 2023 (though, again, he couldn’t name).
“We basically have module designs at this point that will allow us to fit them into almost any form factor, even ones that traditional cameras struggle to fit,” he continued.
The notch at the top of many phones these days is an annoying reminder of this fact. But Devlin said they hope to make that unnecessary with the new “PolarEyes” technology that the funding round aims to accelerate.
PolarEyes was announced earlier in the year: essentially a camera that can read the polarization of light, allowing it to sense different materials, textures and other properties that regular RGB cameras can’t, even giving it limited depth perception. A particularly promising application of the technology is facial recognition for phones.
FaceID on iPhones can work well, but the downside is that it’s an expensive and complex 3D near-field detection module that takes up a ton of space on the top of the phone and basically does nothing 99% of the time. That’s Apple’s decision to make, and people will pay over a fortune for their phones, but what about budget Android devices that also ship in the tens of millions?
“We see a really strong beach and market need to enable a much better, cheaper and more sophisticated facial recognition solution outside of the iPhone. The android and notebook community are looking for something that can do that,” Devlin said, and a Metalenz PolarEyes model has what they’re looking for.
Not only is it much cheaper than a front-facing 3D sensor, it’s also significantly smaller in every dimension – “half the price and half the thickness,” at least eventually, Devlin said.
It performs well in all the usual metrics, he claimed, although large-scale testing is still needed. That’s why they’re shipping units in the coming months to potential customers interested in the feature.
Testing and scaling the PolarEyes product is where most of the $30 million in funding will go. The round was led by Neotribe Ventures, with participation from (gasp) Foothill Ventures, M Ventures, Intel Capital, Osage University Partners, TDK Ventures, 3M Ventures, Global Brains, SG Innovate, Baidu Ventures, Hegemon Capital and Braemar Ventures.