3D sensing technology sees great potential with new generation of smartphones

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This week’s highlight rests upon Ant Financial leading an over two-million-dollar funding round in the domestic 3D sensor startup Orbbec.

On May 21, Shenzhen-based 3D technology solutions provider Orbbec landed over USD 200 million in a Series-D funding round led by Alibaba’s investment arm, Ant Financial. Other investors include SAIF Partners, R-Z Capital, Green Pine Capital Partners, and Tianlangxing Capital.

Founded in 2013 by MIT SMART Center PhD Howard Huang Yuanhao, Orbbec is the fourth largest firm in the world to mass produce 3D sensors for consumer use, following Apple, Microsoft, and Intel. Compatible with multiple devices, these 3D cameras and motion sensors support facial & gesture recognition, human skeleton recognition, 3D measuring, as well as map reconstructions.

Primarily focusing on 3D depth camera hardware, Orbbec uses a structured light approach, similar to that used in the iPhone X. In 2017, the company launched Astra P, a pre-installed 3D facial recognition and structured light camera module solution for smartphones.

According to the company, its solution is now used by over 2,000 companies globally, and can be applied in various fields, including unmanned retail, auto-driving, home systems, smart security, robotics, Industry 4.0, VR/AR, etc.

Though a complicated technology, 3D sensors have managed to attract wide attention since the release of the iPhone X, which measures its user’s face to enhance security integrity. Most AI systems, which are currently equipped with 2D cameras and sensors, are deemed to require a 3D upgrade soon. Likewise, the same prediction applies to other industries, namely AR/VR devices and unmanned driving, which seek more advanced environmental detection systems.

Reciprocally, founder Huang believes that the increasing deployment of 3D sensors will further facilitate development of sensor technology in AI and IoT (Internet of Things). He also revealed that Orbbec aims to expand into smartphone solutions this year.

In 2015, Alibaba first showcased its facial recognition technology at IFA in Germany. Two years later in the city of Hangzhou, Ant Financial piloted face-scanning payment system ‘Smile to Pay’ that incorporates a 3D camera and aims to enhance the security level of Alipay. Following the trial service, Ant Financial joined a USD 460 million Series C funding round in an AI unicorn Face ++, the exact technology provider to “Smile to Pay”. In November 2017, Alibaba led a staggering USD 600 million investment in another AI facial-recognition company, SenseTime.

Hence, Alibaba has rendered itself as a major investor in China’s domestic facial-recognition sector, which arms its core ecommerce business. According to Ant Financial’s biometric identification technology supervisor Chen Jidong, the company can prevent biometric spoofing by linking sophisticated algorithms with 3D cameras. Moreover, by acquiring these technologies, Alibaba parallels the Chinese government’s public security goal of enhancing investment and improving its social-credit apparatus.

(Top photo from unsplash.com)

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