A little-known company called Envisics is getting a hand from major auto industry players as it tries to bring holographic displays to cars.
The startup is raising $50 million from Hyundai Mobis, General Motors Ventures, SAIC Motor, and Van Tuyl Companies. GM says it could use the technology in future electronic vehicles such as the Cadillac Lyriq, while Hyundai Mobis, a major automotive parts supplier, says it will work with Envisics to mass-produce augmented reality displays by 2025.
With holography, Envisics says it can render visuals that seem to appear in front of the car. This could be used to highlight pedestrians, stalled vehicles, or turn-by-turn directions as 3D overlays. It could also provide a bridge to self-driving cars, pointing out specific hazards that require human drivers to retake the wheel.
“We can paint that information directly on reality itself,” says Jamieson Christmas, Envisics’s founder and CEO.
More than a projected image
Today, some vehicles can already project images onto their windshields, showing information such as the current speed limit or turn-by-turn directions. Some systems, such as Mazda’s “Active Driving Display,” even offer some basic augmented reality elements, such as warnings when drivers are drifting out of their lane.
Envisics’s system is fundamentally different. Instead of just displaying two-dimensional images on a flat plane, Envisics uses a device called a holographic modulator, which effectively delays beams of light, combined with proprietary algorithms. This combination is able to simulate the way light moves through space. The result is a 3D pattern that bounces off the car’s windshield and seems as if it’s coming from beyond the glass as it reflects back to the driver. Christmas says Envisics can simulate visuals from 20 meters in front of the vehicle all the way out to the horizon.
“What we’re actually doing is using the windshield as a really poor-quality mirror,” he says. “Of course, it’s transparent; most of the light goes into space. But the bit that does reflect towards you does contain all of that three-dimensional information that enables you to perceive this augmented reality image.”
A rocky road
Envisics’s technology is already installed in about 200,000 cars from Jaguar Land Rover, but they’re using a much cruder version of the product that can only show vehicle information such as speed in front of the driver. The road to Envisics’ second-generation product, which it’s developing now, has been a lot bumpier.
Christmas got involved with holographic technology as a researcher at England’s University of Cambridge in 2004, and in 2010 cofounded a company called Two Trees Photonics to commercialize it. After realizing that in-car displays would be the ideal use case, Two Trees started demoing the technology to automakers. In 2015, Jaguar Land Rover got on board.
But instead of pushing ahead on its own, Two Trees decided to sell itself to Daqri, another startup that was working on augmented reality headsets to compete with the likes of Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens. The idea was that Two Trees’ expertise in holograms would give it an edge in AR hardware, but Christmas says he quickly realized the company should have stayed focused on cars.
“Within months of being acquired, the automotive companies came back and said, ‘Guys, you’ve made a mistake. This holographic technology really is the future of displays in cars, and we’d like you to reconsider,'” Christmas says.
He convinced Daqri to spin off his team, which became Envisics in 2017, and it’s been heads down building a second-generation product for cars ever since. (Daqri, meanwhile, shut down last year amid a broader reckoning for AR headsets and sold its assets to Snap.)
Interest from automakers
Envisics started demoing its second-generation tech at the CES trade show in early 2019, and the response was positive enough that Christmas pushed for another round of investment, this time bringing the automotive industry into the fold. By getting on board early, those companies can play a bigger role in developing the product and making it work with their future cars.
“They clearly recognize that we’ve got some very unique technologies, which in the future will provide them with market differentiation that they can’t find anywhere else,” Christmas says.
Envisics’s tech won’t be exclusive to its investors, though. Christmas says the startup is in “varying levels of conversation” with 11 prospective partners, and it will start appearing in premium SUVs and other large vehicles within a few years. Envisics is also developing a third-generation holographic system that will fit in smaller vehicles, which it hopes will be ready around 2025.
Ultimately, a lot of the heavy lifting in making the technology a reality will come from automakers themselves. Envisics creates only the underlying display technology, not cameras, radar sensors, or lidar sensors that gather information from outside the car, nor the central processor that would allow a vehicle to understand what it’s seeing. Automakers would have to build those systems themselves, along with actual use cases that make Envisics’s holographic tech appealing in the first place. Christmas describes Envisics’s tech not as a complete solution, but as a “three-dimensional blank canvas”—meaning that it’s up to automakers to decide what they’ll actually use the technology for.
Still, the ability to paint information onto the outside world could be essential for car companies that want to offer self-driving features. Despite what automakers were saying a few years ago, fully autonomous cars won’t be viable for a very long time, and humans will have to be in the loop for the foreseeable future. Christmas says he’s excited for Envisics to be part of that reality.
“It would be able to draw your attention to what it’s unclear on and say, ‘You have control, three, two, one, go,'” he says. “The ability for you to immediately understand why the car is giving you control is really a significant advantage.”