Alibaba made a new foray into the world of augmented reality (AR), investing in car technology startup WayRay. The ecommerce giant was part of a group of investors that funded Switzerland-based WayRay to the tune of $18 million in a Series B round.
WayRay’s main AR product is a navigation system called Navion that provides drivers with a heads-up display (HUD) containing information such as road conditions, vehicle speed, traffic, and call and text notifications.
In addition to announcing its new funding, WayRay also revealed it had partnered with Banma Technologies, itself a joint operation between Alibaba and SAIC Motor, one of China’s largest automakers. Under the agreement, WayRay plans to integrate Navion’s navigation and entertainment functions into an SAIC Motor-produced vehicle for model year 2018. WayRay also plans to release a consumer version of its Navion product sometime this year.
With the eventual adoption of self-driving cars considered a foregone conclusion among most observers, AR technology like that found in Navion could eventually be adopted to serve as entertainment or even ecommerce channels for passengers.
Alibaba’s investment reflects an ongoing expansion by the firm into technologies that seem outside its core business of ecommerce at first glance. However, the company has proved to be rather forward-looking about the ways that devices like connected cars can generate new revenues.
For example, Alibaba previously partnered with SAIC Motor on the production of the Roewe RX5, a car model that runs a version of Alibaba’s smart vehicle operating system. The technology allows drivers to access services that can be paid for using Alipay, the digital payment service owned by Alibaba affliate Ant Financial.
Alibaba has also dabbled in virtual reality, unveiling a platform called Buy+ in November 2016 that is designed to work with VR headsets. Buy+ allows users to access a virtual version of certain retail shops on its Taobao Marketplace and make purchases using gestures.
According to Eloi Gerard, CEO and co-founder of Shanghai-based VR content studio Crow’s Nest, the widespread adoption of VR is still years away. “It’s going to take maybe 10 years for people to use VR like we are using the mobile phone right now, and for it to reach 80% of the population,” he said. “VR probably won’t be mainstream, because there is no point in wearing a VR headset in day-to-day life.”