Metalenz PolarEyes upgrades digital sensing with polarized light

Tech sees differently, and can fuse multiple types of data we can’t even perceive: lidar, IR, ultrasonic, and so on. Metalenz, maker of highly compact “2D” cameras for advanced sensing, hopes to bring polarized light into the mix for security and safety with its PolarEyes tech.

Polarization isn’t a quality of light that’s often paid much attention. It has to do with the orientation of the photon’s movement as it waves its way through the air, and generally you can get the info you need from light without checking its polarization. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless.

“Polarization generally gets thrown out, but it really can tell you something about what the objects you’re looking at are made out of. And it can find contrast that normal cameras can’t see,” said Metalenz co-founder and CEO Rob Devlin. “In healthcare, it’s been used historically to tell whether a cell is cancerous or not — the color and intensity don’t change in the visible light, but looking at polarization it works.”

But polarized light cameras are pretty much only found in medical or industrial settings where their specific qualities are needed, and therefore the devices that do it are fantastically expensive and rather large. Not the kind of thing you would want clipped to the top of your laptop screen, even if you could afford the six figure price.

The advance Metalenz made when I wrote about them last year was reliably and inexpensively manufacturing the complex micro-scale 3D optical features to make a tiny but effective camera on a chip. These devices, Devlin said, are currently coming to market as part of an industrial 3D sensing module, partly in partnership with STMicroelectronics. But the polarization thing has more consumer-relevant applications.

“Polarization in facial recognition tells you whether you’re looking at real human skin, or a silicone mask, or a high quality photo or something. In automotive settings, you can detect black ice, it’s really difficult with normal cameras but it jumps out with polarization,” said Devlin.

In the case of facial recognition, the unit could be small enough to sit alongside a normal camera in a front-facing array, like the lidar unit in iPhones that currently scans the face using tiny lasers. A polarized light sensor would instead (in this example) split the image into four, presumably corresponding to four different axes of polarization, each of which shows a slightly different version of the image. These differences can be evaluated the way the differences between images taken a small distance or time apart can, allowing the geometry and details of the face to be observed.

Polarized light is split into 4 streams, showing different details of a face.

Image Credits: Metalenz

Polarized light has the advantage of also being able to tell the difference between materials: skin reflects light differently than a realistic mask or photo. Perhaps this isn’t a common threat in your everyday life, but if a phone manufacturer could get the same “Face ID” type feature, with added anti-spoofing security, and use something less exotic than a tiny lidar unit, they’d probably jump on the opportunity. (And Metalenz is talking to the right people here.)

The automotive and industrial side is also useful, as telling what a given pixel you’re looking at is made of is a surprisingly complex question that usually involves identifying the object it’s part of. But using polarization data you can tell the difference between lots of materials instantly — and in fact this is part of the value proposition of Voyant’s new lidar. You don’t even need a lot of resolution – one polarized pixel for every hundred normal ones would still offer huge insight on a given scene.

Demo of PolarID, a facial recognition system using polarized light instead of 3D sensing.

Image Credits: Metalenz

All this depends on the ability of Metalenz to make the polarized camera units small and sensitive enough to use in these situations. They’ve reduced the breadbox-scale units used industrially to a cracker-sized one they’ve been testing with, and are working on a Skittle-sized camera stack that could be added or swapped in for other camera units in robots, cars, laptops, perhaps even phones. It’s firmly in the “development” phase of research and development.

Metalenz is currently working off last year’s A round from 3M, Applied Ventures, Intel, TDK and others, the type of crowd you expect to invest in a potentially lucrative new component type. If interest in PolarEyes is anything like what the company had for its first sensor, we can expect another raise to cover the scaling costs soon.

Warehouse robotics system Exotec raises $335 million

French startup Exotec has raised a $335 million Series D round in a new round of funding led by Goldman Sachs’ Growth Equity business. Following today’s investment, the company has reached a valuation of $2 billion.

Exotec sells a complete end-to-end solution to turn a regular warehouse into a partially automated logistics platform. It’s a hardware and software solution that replaces some human tasks.

83North and Dell Technologies Capital also participated in the funding round. Previous Exotec investors include Bpifrance, Iris Capital, 360 Capital Partners and Breega.

Image Credits: Exotec

The key component of the Exotec system is called the Skypods. These low-profile robots roam the floor autonomously. When they’re next to the right rack, they can go up the rack to pick up a bin and then go down with the right bin. This is particularly useful to increase the storage density of a warehouse as you can store products a few meters above ground.

The Skypod then caries the bin to a picking station so that human operators can pick up the right product in the bin. The robot can then go back to the racks and put back the bin on a shelf.

In that scenario, humans don’t have to roam the warehouse anymore. They can focus on picking, packing and making sure products go in and out of the warehouse. When it comes to adding new products, new shelves and new Skypods, Exotec tries to be as flexible as possible.

If you want to add new racks, you can expand your infrastructure without starting from scratch again. Similarly, Exotec lets you add more Skypods in the system. And when you receive a delivery of products, Exotec relies once again on its Skypods to store products in the fulfillment center.

From Skypods to Skypickers

With its standardized bin system, Exotec can store several products in a single bin. There might be 18 products in that bin but customers want one, two or three products in that bin — most likely they don’t want the entire bin. That’s why Exotec can’t simply empty small bins in a bigger bin to put together an order.

The startup has created new robots to remove humans from one more step of the ordering process. Exotec customers can now use Skypickers to automatically pick goods from an inventory bin and put them in a ready-to-ship bin.

This is what it looks like:

“Following the most significant supply chain disruptions of the modern era, there’s only room left for innovation,” co-founder and CEO Romain Moulin said in a statement. “While the entire logistics sector is fraught with uncertainty, one of the most prevalent challenges is ongoing labor shortages. Exotec pioneers a new path: elegant collaboration between human and robot workers that delivers warehouse productivity in a lasting, far more sustainable way.”

Exotec has always positioned its product as a service that can’t replace humans altogether. An Exotec warehouse is run by a combination of humans and robots. With the Skypickers though, the startup is positioning itself as a logistics advantage in a tight labor market.

Following today’s funding round, the startup plans to hire 500 engineers by 2025 and continue its push in North America. It has recently signed eight large customers in the region, such as Gap and Geodis. Decathlon is also using Exotec in its Montreal fulfillment center.

The M11 is Leica’s new flagship rangefinder

Leica’s a strange one. It only puts out a handful of cameras every year, and most of them are remixes or minor iterations on previous models. Since 2017 its flagship has been the solid but still somewhat archaic M10, but now the company has revealed its successor: the even more solid and also still somewhat archaic M11.

Leica really defined the rangefinder style in cameras, and its film models are legendary. In the digital era they are known more for their prices than anything else. While the build and image quality of the M10, Q2 and other cameras was unimpeachable, you could get a lot more camera for considerably less money elsewhere. That won’t change with the M11, but at least the new model brings some much-needed modern features.

Perhaps the most important is the switch to a backside-illuminated sensor. This misleading term refers to putting the light-sensitive part of the sensor toward the aperture rather than letting it sit behind wiring and other components. BSI sensors usually outperform their traditional predecessors by quite a lot, and Leica generally has a good sensor game to begin with. Interestingly, they seem to have chosen a non-Bayer sub-pixel layout with an eye toward superior pixel binning.

The new full-frame, 60-megapixel BSI sensor can be shot at full resolution, of course, but hardly anyone needs that these days. The 36MP and 18MP options sample the entire sensor rather than just lines or regions, reducing noise and artifacts. If I got one of these I’d switch it to 36MP and never look back. There are also 1.3x and 1.8x crop modes for those who enjoy them.

A Leica M11 on a table plugged into a phone.

Image Credits: Leica

There are now three easily reassignable function buttons. The rear touchscreen has twice the resolution of the old M10, though if you’re a real Leica fan you’ll probably have your eye to the optical finder.

Interestingly, but controversially, the M11 uses its full sensor at all times for exposure purposes. Having the camera essentially always in “live view” mode means accurate exposures, but according to DPReview’s initial review, it leads to longish startup times — and Leicas are generally quick as lightning to turn on and shoot with.

There’s a USB-C port that charges the camera’s new and much larger battery, or to pull shots off the card or 64-gig internal memory — or to suck them directly onto your phone and a companion app (another reason not to shoot full rez).

Leica’s M series is unique and definitely not an option for more hobby photographers, who will rightfully balk at the $8,995 price for the M11 body — the M10 debuted at $6,600 in 2017, and even adjusting for inflation the new price is eye-popping. And of course that’s before you get any lenses!

But the point is not to recommend this camera specifically — more to note that Leica is still making technically interesting and quite competent cameras, the technology of which occasionally dips down to prices that mere mortals like you and I might be able to afford (after living on ramen for a month or two, anyway). Expect to see more variants of the M11 over the years, but also some of the design lessons on display here applied to something more affordable. Not affordable affordable, but “less than a used car” affordable.

This device attaches magnetically to a face mask to monitor the wearer’s vitals

Perhaps 2022 will be the year consumer health tracking moves beyond the wrist. We’ve seen Oura’s rise over the past few years and a CES that brought with it a couple of ring fitness trackers. Following Google’s addition to vital and sleep tracking on the Nest Home, Sengled is adding the feature to a smart lightbulb.

So, why not the face mask? Health-related face coverings have long been a fixture in a number of countries, like China, and are pretty much everywhere in this pandemic world. It’s hard to say whether mainstream adoption of masks will outlive COVID-19 in the U.S., but as the pandemic drags on, it seems increasingly likely that they’ll remain a part of daily lives for the foreseeable future.

Image Credits: Northwestern University

The face is a solid position from which to monitor certain vitals, and the widespread adoption of masks offers a relatively fixed spot to collect that data. Accordingly, a team at Northwestern University is showing off FaceBit — the “FitBit for the Face” — which attaches to an N95, surgical or cloth mask via magnet. From there, it’s able to monitor respiratory and heart rate, as well as time spent in the mask.

“We wanted to design an intelligent face mask for health care professionals that does not need to be inconveniently plugged in during the middle of a shift,” team leader Josiah Hester said in a statement. “We augmented the battery’s energy with energy harvesting from various sources, which means that you can wear the mask for a week or two without having to charge or replace the battery.”

The system, which was recently detailed in a paper, can also determine mask fit — an issue for anyone not accustomed to using a mask. If the mask loosens or is bumped out of place, the connected app will send an alert to the wearer. Currently, the system’s battery lasts around 11 days on a charge, though the team is envisioning a battery-free version, powered by things like thermal and kinetic energy.

The product will need to undergo further clinical trials before proceeding, though the project has also been offered up as an open source product for those interested.

Back Market reaches $5.7B valuation for its refurbished device marketplace

French startup Back Market has raised another mega round of funding. In May, the company raised a $335 million Series D round. Today, the company is announcing a $510 million Series E round, which values the company at $5.7 billion.

If you’re not familiar with Back Market, the company operates a marketplace of refurbished electronics devices — mostly smartphones. In other words, if you think smartphones are expensive, you can get a phone that is still in good condition without paying full price.

There are many reasons consumers might buy a phone on Back Market instead of buying a new phone from a carrier or smartphone manufacturer. In addition to saving money, many customers think new phones only feature incremental updates compared to previous generation models.

Many customers also want to avoid generating additional waste and choose a used device for that reason. Many old smartphones simply end up in a drawer after all. A new battery and sometimes a new display might be enough to turn an old device into an attractive refurbished phone.

Back Market doesn’t refurbish devices directly. Instead, third-party companies act as the sourcing partners for Back Market. By listing their inventory on Back Market’s marketplace, they can find customers more easily.

On the other end of the transaction, customers buy devices through Back Market, as there’s a 30-day money-back guarantee. Overall, 6 million customers have purchased a device on Back Market.

Sprints Capital is leading today’s funding round, with existing investors also participating, such as Eurazeo, Aglaé Ventures, General Atlantic and Generation Investment Management. The French tech ecosystem has been on a roll as PayFit, Qonto and Ankorstore also announced that they had raised hundreds of millions of euros each over the last few days.

“Our goal is to make refurbished electronics the first choice for tech purchases. We expect to see a similar development in the electronics market as we have witnessed in the pre-owned car market in America, where consumer confidence in buying second-hand vehicles has resulted in sales that have increased twofold compared to new car sales,” co-founder and CEO Thibaud Hug de Larauze said in a statement. “The support and confidence of these funds, together with our growing customer base, marks an important step in Back Market’s journey, and more importantly, for the circular economy as a whole.”

One metric that is particularly important for Back Market is the average failure rate. Right now, the company estimates that it has a failure rate of about 4%, which means that one in every 25 phones doesn’t work as expected in one way or another. That’s why customer service is key when it comes to customer satisfaction. The company also estimates that new devices have a 3% failure rate.

The startup expects to double in size with a specific focus on the U.S. market — it currently has 650 employees. Back Market operates in 16 countries, including many European markets, the U.S. and Japan.