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Bristol tech company that develops hand-tracking solution gets $50M backing from Tencent

Image credits: Ultraleap

The future is a place where infinite worlds are at your fingertips and you can interact both naturally and in 3D without any controllers. Understanding this, Bristol-based Ultraleap, the world-leading hand tracking, and unparalleled mid-air haptic technologies let you engage naturally with the digital world without touching surfaces.

Ultraleap makes hand-tracking haptic (touch) technology. It works with Qualcomm, Varjo, and others to create high-end enterprise applications for Extended Reality (XR). Its spatial interaction technology solutions offer a haptic module that enables the integration of virtual touch and an optical hand tracking module, which has the capability to capture the movements of a user’s hands with unparalleled accuracy and near-zero latency.

Also, it offers a TouchFree application, which enables to add touchless gesture control to interactive screens. The software application runs on an interactive kiosk or advertising totem and has the capability to detects a user’s hand in mid-air and converts it to an on-screen cursor.

Demand for its TouchFree system

Ultraleap’s technology witnessed a huge demand during the pandemic, where interfaces that work sans human touch help prevent spreading the novel coronavirus. Recently, Ultraleap established a partnership with Simply NUC to use its TouchFree system with computers. It wants to bring the TouchFree application to market to meet the increasing demand for touchless interaction.

This technology will likely play a role in AR headsets and smartglasses, where hand gestures are a prevalent form of user input. Already, Ultraleap has integrated its Gemini software into the Varjo XR-3 headset and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR2 reference design.

It was trialled at the fast-food chain KFC in Poland to enable customers to order remotely, and a digital out-of-home immersive play experience with LEGO at London’s Westfield shopping centre. The company believes demand for its technology will witness a surge in the post-pandemic world where remote engagement is the key.

Investment from Tencent

Recently, Image Frame Investment, a Tencent subsidiary, invested $50 million (nearly £35 million) into Ultraleap in the first phase of the company’s Series D round. This funding round takes the valuation of Ultraleap to nearly $240 million. Notably, Chinese technology giant Tencent is the world’s largest video game developer by revenue. With Tencent’s investment, Ultraleap will get a major strategic partner ahead of its possible IPO in the next couple of years.

It looks like Tencent is forecasting the future growth potential in augmented reality with this investment, thereby marking the next paradigm in computing. Previously, Tencent bought stock from Snapchat parent Snap, Inc. and invested in Epic Games and Meta Company. In addition, Tencent has an indirect investment into Nreal by way of Kuaishou, a video startup.

Besides this, the UK government also backs Ultraleap and has invested several million pounds through its Future Fund last year. Other major investors in Ultraleap include Mayfair Equity Partners, which led its Series C round in 2018.

Acquisition and achievements

The Bristol-based company was founded in 2013 by Tom Carter as Ultrahaptics Limited during his studies at the University of Bristol. In 2019, it acquired San Francisco-based Leap Motion and was rebranded to Ultraleap. Although the company appears to be making losses, its revenues are expected to surge this year due to the demand for its Touchfree system.

Following the investment round, Tom Carter has been awarded one of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s most prestigious individual awards, the Silver Medal. Tom will be presented with the Silver Medal on July 13. The globally renowned Silver Medal recognises an outstanding and demonstrated personal contribution to UK engineering that has resulted in successful market exploitation.

On receiving the award, Tom said: “I am extremely honoured to receive such a prestigious award from the Academy. When we first set out to commercialise our haptics product, I had no idea what was in store. I’m proud of what we’ve created at Ultraleap and I’m so fortunate to have amassed such a talented and impressive team that are dedicated to continual innovation and the development of our technologies.”

Ultraleap employs over 150 people across Europe, North America, and Asia. It has become the first company to offer the full vertical stack of software and hardware to enable spatial computing across industries. While its hand-tracking capabilities were developed partly for customers in the automotive sector, these are also gaining traction from companies in the medical, industrial and entertainment sectors.