In a driverless future, cars – not just smartphones – could be our portal to ecommerce and entertainment. Alibaba wants to be part of it, starting with its Apple CarPlay-esque system.
Today, the Chinese ecommerce giant led a US$18 million series B round for WayRay, a Switzerland-based startup specializing in augmented reality products for cars, such as its AR navigation system that overlays directions onto the car’s windshield.
“Each car has a windshield and inside windows. These surfaces could be used as […] augmented reality displays and we could put any type of content around the car,” Vitaly Ponomarev, founder and CEO of WayRay, tells Tech in Asia. “When I started the company, I wanted to create not only a hardware company but a media company that would provide content for drivers and passengers.”
Founded in 2012, WayRay has spent the last four years developing patented holographic AR displays that project images onto a special film, not directly onto the windshield. In terms of driver safety, the startup says it has conducted numerous eye tracking tests on drivers to determine where they look in different situations, and has three test vehicles driving around Moscow.
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WayRay will also partner with Banma Technologies, a joint venture by Alibaba and SAIC, one of China’s largest automakers. The startup is building an AR interface for one of Banma’s 2018 models, capable of displaying driving assistant notifications, navigation information, a virtual dashboard, and more.
This isn’t Alibaba’s first foray into cars.
“We will continue to pay attention to the development of leading-edge technology like augmented reality and its application to various industries, like Wayray’s AR navigation system in the auto sector,” said Ethan Xie, senior investment director of Alibaba Group, in the press release.
This isn’t Alibaba’s first foray into cars. Last July, the online shopping firm partnered with SAIC to launch the Roewe RX5, featuring YunOS, Alibaba’s operating system for smart devices, such as refrigerators and phones. RX5 drivers can access various online services in the car, such as booking and paying for parking spaces via Alipay, a mobile payment system by Ant Financial, Alibaba’s payments affiliate.
WayRay’s holographic AR interfaces, which respond to both voice and gesture control, fit well into Alibaba’s car plans. The global connected car market is expected to reach US$180.3 billion by 2022. That’s a hefty market for Alibaba’s existing portfolio of shopping, entertainment, and finance products.
For WayRay, syncing with Banma and Alibaba offers inroads into China, the largest car market in the world. The startup plans to launch two standalone products this year: Navion, its AR navigation system, and Element, a smart car tracker. It also plans to develop embedded AR interfaces with other car manufacturers in China and the US.
So far, WayRay has raised a total of US$30 million in investment capital. In addition to Alibaba, existing investors include Sistema, a Russian joint stock financial corporation. The company has a research and development center in Moscow and is in the process of opening its first China office in Shanghai.
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