Get Ready to Be Submerged by the New Optics Revolution

This market research report was originally published at the Yole Group’s website. It is reprinted here with the permission of the Yole Group.

A new, tiny device is appearing in some smartphone sensing modules, initiating a revolution in the field of consumer photonics technologies and how we can manipulate light. Indeed, Yole Group had identified the presence of this device, which some experts call metalens, meta-optics, metasurface components…, in two different mobile phone models: the Google Pixel 8 and the Samsung Galaxy S23 – Detailed information is available in Consumer Teardown Tracks, Smartphone modules from Yole Group. They are located in the dToF ranger used to help photography autofocus at the rear of the smartphone, advantageously replacing the traditional optics inside STMicroelectronics’ new FlightSense™ module (VL53L8).

In the short term, meta-optics look promising for ranging and 3D sensing applications and have been investigated in Yole Intelligence’s latest 3D Imaging and Sensing 2023 report. Meta-optics are expected to make 3D sensing module simpler and more compact while increasing their performance. At Yole Group, analysts estimate the 3D sensing optics for Mobile and Consumer applications represented a $960 million market in 2022.

A thriving ecosystem of start-ups providing meta-optics has emerged in the last few years. Metalenz is one of the pioneers in this field.

Where does meta-optics come from? Why is this technology promising to be a game changer for imaging and sensing module performance? At the Qualcomm Snapdragon Summit in October, Metalenz launched its first system-level solution, Polar ID. According to the latest press release, by harnessing the unique capabilities of metasurfaces to capture and sort polarized light, Polar ID brings a new form of sensing to mobile devices for the first time and enables secure and affordable Face Unlock for all smartphones.

Florian Domengie and Axel Clouet, both Analysts at Yole Group, had the opportunity to discuss with Rob Devlin, CEO of Metalenz, the company that has successfully brought this disruptive optics technology into actual commercial devices for the first time.

Discover this conversation and dive deep into the imaging world.

Florian Domengie (FD): Could you provide a brief overview of Metalenz’s background?

Rob Devlin (RD): Metalenz is at the forefront of driving innovation in optics with metasurface technology, providing solutions that redefine the possibilities of mobile 3D sensing. We are changing the way that people and machines interact with and understand the world by empowering millions of devices with new information.

We spun out of the Capasso Lab at Harvard University in 2016 and have an exclusive license to commercialize this foundational work on metasurfaces. Our technology provides complex, multifunctional optical performance in a single, simple, semiconductor layer mass-produced in existing semiconductor foundries. From 2016 until 2021, we were essentially taking our technology and finding a product-market fit. In just five years, we were able to take metasurfaces from the lab and scale them to mass production. In 2022, in partnership with STMicroelectronics, we became the first company to bring metasurfaces to mass markets, and millions of our meta-optics are now integrated into devices.

While we continue to have commercial success with the first generation of meta-optics, we have now launched a complete system (hardware and software) biometric solution—Polar ID. Now running on Qualcomm Snapdragon, Polar ID is poised to drive large-scale adoption of secure face unlock across the Android ecosystem. Beyond biometrics, Polar ID brings an entirely new form of sensing to the mobile form factor and price point for the first time.

FD: How would you define a metalens? What distinguishes meta-optics from refractive or more traditional diffractive optics?

RD: A metalens is an entirely flat and planar optic. If you think about traditional optics or conventional diffractive optics, you typically have some form of variation in the shape of the structures – in the size or dimensionality along the way that the light is propagating—think of the curvature of a traditional lens. With our technology, we are able (with a single, flat semiconductor layer) to completely control all aspects of the light passing through the metasurface. That’s not something you can do with traditional refractive lenses. Conventional DOE’s (diffractive optical elements) have similar limitations, an obstacle to performance, or are generally not mass-producible. And it’s really that part about the control of all the aspects of light from Metalenz technology – most importantly, polarization information – that allows us to jump from selling a component to providing whole new information sets in machine vision systems. Now, information [polarization information] that conventional, diffractive, and refractive optics are throwing away is rich information you can use because of how we design the system around the metasurface.

Axel Clouet (AC): What added value do these components add to imaging and sensing modules and applications?

RD: The first place we’ve launched metasurfaces for is 3D sensing. This is a market where you have some of the most complicated optical modules existing. And with consumer devices, especially phones today, manufacturers are typically attempting to take complicated optical sensing systems and put them into very challenging form factors. With the metasurface, what you’re able to do is drastically reduce the complexity of those 3D sensing systems. As an example, for structured light or a LiDAR system, you typically need something like 8 conventional diffractive and refractive optics on the imaging and the illumination side. You can replace the functionality of those eight optics with just one metasurface on the imaging Rx and one metasurface on the transmit. So, metasurfaces broadly allow you to take complicated optical systems, reduce the complexity, and reduce the form factor without a trade-off in performance. In fact, you often extract new information because of the level of control our designs provide.

AC: How are metalenses manufactured? Are there any specific materials or manufacturing steps required?

RD: This is one of the biggest benefits of the technology and why we’ve been able to scale it from the lab to millions of devices in just a handful of years. Even from the early days in the Capasso group, when they were thinking about these optics, the vision of a metasurface was something you could make with a single semiconductor layer. The meta-optics that we’ve launched don’t need any new type of lithography. You don’t need any new exotic materials. We use what already exists and has been leveraged in semiconductor foundries for the past 50-plus years. Because of this, it’s allowed an exciting technology proven at the university lab scale to realize the potential seen in early meta-optics demonstrations. There are many instances of exciting technology that never had the infrastructure to be mass-produced or could never meet the scale they had promised. That’s entirely different for Metalenz because we use conventional DUV lithography to make our devices—no need for new, complicated, or expensive patterning techniques. You can make these in a pure-play foundry, as we have demonstrated with our partner UMC.

FD: What market and applications are you focusing on? How will you penetrate those markets?

RD: We see meta-optics having a massive impact across industries as wide-ranging as transportation and healthcare. The first application is 3D sensing for consumer electronics. If you look at something like structured light systems or time of flight systems, for example, the product that our partner STMicroelectronics has in the market, FlightSense™, our technology is replacing the existing optics in a 3D sensing solution. That’s been the beachhead for Metalenz technology. We have also launched our own “Orion” dot projector products through our independent supply chain/pure-play foundry. With UMC as our foundry, we also have our meta-optics in structured light modules for payment kiosks and smart locks for our customer Dilusense, a 3D sensing solution company. So, the place that metasurfaces play today is 3D sensing and biometrics, and we have already displaced millions of traditional refractive and diffractive optics there.

One of the biggest things for new technologies is that for companies, especially large companies, it’s always safer for them to push the incumbent to perform a little bit more, say, 5% more. They at least know that mass producibility is there and reliable. The partnership and the initial launch with STMicroelectronics have allowed us to de-risk the hardware part of this new technology.

AC: Regarding your recent activities, Metalenz has introduced Polar ID. Could you elaborate on this?

RD: Polar ID is a new product that we recently launched. We already have evaluation kits in the hands of OEMs and have been getting positive feedback, so we are readying ourselves for mass production. So, this is a case where Metalenz is taking all the knowledge we’ve gained through interacting with OEMs as a component company and the fact that metasurfaces allow you to extract this additional information from light.  Today, the OEMs are not thinking of how to use this information because it hasn’t been available. With Metalenz having that unique knowledge of what a metasurface can do, we’ve decided that there’s an even more valuable end solution. The technology platform for this is what we call PolarEyes, and our first product is Polar ID, a biometric sensing solution using polarization.


As we went out to the market with the polarization data capability that meta-optics provide and we started to socialize the concept of using this as a biometric sensing solution for facial recognition, what we found was a very strong pull from the Android OEMs (which represent more than 1 billion phones) since they don’t have secure facial recognition or are currently making some sort of a trade-off between security, convenience, and cost. We found that Polar ID is the only solution that can provide the combination of form factor, price point, and security levels that really allow payment-grade biometric facial recognition to scale to all devices.

FD: Metasurfaces have been a growing trend in the past few years, and we observe a thriving ecosystem emerging. Where does Metalenz stand in this new ecosystem, and what is its strength?

RD: Metalenz stands as the leader. We’re the first to commercialize meta-optics, the 1st to put them out there, and we come from the group where metasurfaces were invented, so we have that knowledge base and foundational IP. We have developed deep customer relationships. Similarly, being able to take metasurfaces to mass production in such a short period of time, we now sit in a position where the OEMs trust Metalenz to share and solve their deepest pain points. With Polar ID, we’re moving beyond the component level to solving system and application-level problems for the OEMs and directly differentiating them as we provide a better user experience. We will continue to grow the 3D sensing component portion of our business, but now we’re leveraging the knowledge we’ve gained to do something even more impactful. We’re no longer just sitting in the optical stack with our technology; we are providing new information and complete system solutions around the unique aspects of metasurfaces – directly impacting end-user needs.

AC: How do you envision the future of metaoptics for imaging, sensing, and display applications? What are the next steps or significant challenges to overcome?

RD: What we’re doing now with Polar ID will bring a whole new information set to billions of individuals through their devices. We’re focusing on biometrics first, but this polarization capability has a whole host of other known applications from medical and scientific labs. Applications we’re not even thinking of yet are likely to emerge as well.

Generally, metasurfaces are so versatile that there are nearly endless applications—anywhere you need a compact, fully customizable optic that can be produced at scale. I think controlling the light coming out of a display is a really interesting application for metasurfaces, especially with the emergence of microLED displays. Primarily, I see it as enabling a new age of information by delivering a whole new information set to AI/machine vision systems. The challenges will be finding those new applications and learning how to use this new information in new and impactful ways.

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