An engineer with previous work experience at Dassault Aviation and Airbus Group, Eye Lights co-founder and CEO Romain Duflot had developed the first prototype of a Bluetooth-enabled retrofit HUD module for motorcycle helmets in 2015, just before graduating together with co-founder and CTO Thomas De Saintignon from ICAM Toulouse.
In 2017, the company sold over one million euros’ worth of its first commercial product, the Moto Display. Then in 2018, the startup raised a total of 3 million euros to expand its market to the automotive sector with a car HUD design. Since then, it delivered over 250,000 euros worth of retrofit car HUDs with bright 8” HD projection onto the windshield and gesture control. The units were initially offered through crowdfunding in 2019.
In its latest kickstarter campaign (March 2020), the company got the backing from a crowd of 2,720 eager motorbikers for its EyeRide head-up display, an improved version of Moto Display. Weighing 70 grams, the new version integrates a 3000 nits bright full colour OLED display from Sony, meaning true blacks and no ghosting effects across the display’s 24º field of view, with a virtual image 2m away.
So what’s next at the company and aren’t other HUD manufacturers taking note? eeNews Europe asked.
Duflot admits that the automotive HUD market is already crowded, but he is keen to highlight that most innovations in this market have only been incremental, and always too costly. “Our value proposition is to offer technical solutions that are ten times smaller in volume than incumbent offers, while being much brighter at 5000 nits and more cost effective.
“Even as a small company we control all the product design steps from in-mould optoelectronics to the electronic front-end, which makes us very agile, we can quickly iterate prototypes based on customer feedback to provide the best technological fit. The reason why we succeed is that we bring the right technology for the right use case and at a good price point” Duflot said.
“Today’s HUD solutions tend to throw overly complex and costly technology at the automotive market without properly addressing actual use cases. Most of them don’t use Google Maps or Waze, which are the predominant car navigation apps consumers are used to on their smartphone”, the CEO observes as an example of a market misfit.
Now, seeing the market success of the company’s helmet HUD retrofit module, wouldn’t established motorbike helmet makers want a share of the pie?
“We’ve seen a number of smart helmets announced with built-in HUDs or visor displays over the last two or three years, but nothing reached the commercialization stage. It takes about two years to develop a new helmet and today, helmet manufacturers have to be very cost-competitive, there is less R&D money to spend and they remain focused on passive safety, securing the wearer against chocs. We bring all the technological bricks to add active safety, with HUD navigation, call pickup and Bluetooth remote control (via a simple wireless button on the handlebars)”, says Duflot.
Eye Lights is happy to share CAD files for the dock-in mechanism it uses so helmet manufacturers could integrate part of it, even as a hidden option under a small rubber flap. And yes, some companies reached out to the startup to figure out how they could make their helmets more HUD-ready or possibly integrate some of its technology bricks.
“We have the technology and know-how to address all sectors of mobility-related augmented reality, from in-visor HUD for fighter jet helmets to consumer motorbike helmets” notes Duflot, “but at much lower manufacturing costs than all the big players out there and with better performance, in full colour” he adds.
Asked when the company would break even, the CEO emphasizes that if it had solely focused on selling helmet HUDs for consumers, it would already be profitable on the basis of its previous kickstarter campaigns alone. But the company has made a strategic choice to seek investors’ funds to expand into other markets and broaden its product portfolio.
As for industrial AR helmets, another potentially attractive market, Duflot anticipates Eye Lights could beat today’s high tech players on a cost basis.
“We’ll let the big players fail with their costly designed and overly fragile solutions. The problem is, marketing often escalate around a device’s technological performance rather than focus on usability, ruggedness and cost of deployment” the CEO says. For this market to develop into sizable volumes for logistics or maintenance operators, you need lightweight and low cost but rugged solutions. The same holds true for military AR-enabled helmets, notes Duflot. Safety remains the most important aspect, and if the field of view is too narrow or fiddling with AR requires constant adjustments or head turns, then in the most critical situations, the wearer may well throw the helmet away and deal with the situation unprotected, which defeats the purpose of having these expensive helmets around.
Eye Lights grew from 3 in 2016 to 18 staff today, “a team made up of optical PhDs, world-class engineers, software developers and designers who have worked for Peugeot, Intel, Parrot, or for firefighters on products like the Oakley Radar Pace and the Intel Vaunt smart glasses”, as the startup boasted on its kickstarter campaign.
Although Eye Lights may have already been approached by larger groups with acquisitions in mind, Duflot says it would not be the right time as it has yet to mature and further raise its profile.