Metalenz PolarEyes uses polarised light to improve digital sensing

Tech has a new perspective and can combine numerous sorts of data that humans can’t see: lidar, infrared, ultrasonic, and so on. With its PolarEyes technology, Metalenz, a developer of incredibly tiny “2D” cameras for sophisticated sensing, intends to integrate polarised light into the mix for security and safety.

Polarization is not even a light characteristic that gets a lot of attention. It has to do with the direction of the photon’s travel as it waves through the air, and you can usually receive all the information you need from light without examining its polarisation. That isn’t to say it isn’t useful.

“Polarization is often dismissed, although it may reveal a lot about the materials used in the items you’re looking at. Metalenz co-founder and CEO Rob Devlin remarked, “It can locate contrast that standard cameras can’t notice.” “It’s been used in healthcare for years to determine if a cell is malignant or not – the colour and intensity don’t change in visible light, but polarisation does.”

However, since polarised light cameras are almost exclusively used in medical or industrial contexts where their unique properties are required, the machines that perform this function are very costly and enormous. Even if you could afford the six-figure price, this isn’t something you’d want clipped to the top of your laptop screen.

When I reported about Metalenz last year, their breakthrough was in consistently and affordably producing the complicated micro-scale 3D optical characteristics needed to create a small but functional camera on a chip. These devices are now being developed as part of an industrial 3D sensing module, partially in collaboration with STMicroelectronics, according to Devlin. The polarisation issue, on the other hand, has more consumer-relevant implications.

“In face recognition, polarisation informs you whether you’re looking at actual human skin, a silicone mask, a high-resolution picture, or anything else. “You can identify black ice in automobile conditions; it’s tough with standard cameras, but it pops out with polarisation,” Devlin said.

Inside the case of face detection, the device might be small enough to fit with a regular camera in a front-facing array, similar to the lidar unit found in iPhones, which scans the face with tiny lasers. In this case, a polarised light sensor would divide the picture into four parts, presumably corresponding to four separate polarisation axes, each of which displays a slightly different version of the image. These discrepancies can be analysed in the same way that differences between photos taken at a short distance or time apart may be examined, enabling the geometry and features of the face to be viewed.

Polarized light has the added benefit of allowing you to distinguish between various materials: flesh reflects light differently than a realistic mask or picture. Perhaps this isn’t a regular concern in your daily life, but if a phone maker could acquire a similar “Face ID” function with improved anti-spoofing security and utilise something less exotic than a small lidar unit, they’d definitely leap at the chance. (And Metalenz is in touch with the appropriate folks.)

The automotive and industrial sectors are especially beneficial, since determining what a specific pixel is composed of is a very difficult task that frequently requires recognising the product it belongs to. However, you can instantaneously discern the difference between a variety of materials using polarisation data, which is part of Voyant’s new lidar’s value proposition. You don’t even need a lot of resolution; one polarised pixel for every hundred regular pixels may provide a lot of information about a scene.

Everything is contingent on Metalenz’s ability to create polarised camera modules that are compact and sensitive enough to be used in these conditions. They’ve scaled down the breadbox-scale cameras used in industry to a cracker-sized camera stack that they’ve been testing, and they’re working on a Skittle-sized camera stack that could be added to or changed out for other cameras in robots, automobiles, computers, and even even phones. It’s firmly in the research and development “development” phase.

Metalenz is now operating on the backs of last year’s A round, which included 3M, Applied Ventures, Intel, TDK, and others, the kind of crowd you’d expect to back a potentially profitable new component type. If demand in PolarEyes is as strong as it was for its initial sensor, we should anticipate another round of funding to pay the scaling expenses in the near future.