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A Peek at Pico Projectors

Is a projector in the hand worth one in the ceiling? That's one question facing pico projectors, a new breed of projectors designed for a variety of handheld applications, including cell phones aimed 1/08/2008 5:46 AM Eastern

A Peek at Pico Projectors

Is a projector in the hand worth one in the ceiling? That's one question facing pico projectors, a new breed of projectors designed for a variety of handheld applications, including cell phones aimed at the enterprise market.

IS A PROJECTOR IN HAND WORTH ONE IN ceiling? That's one question facing pico projectors, a new breed of projectors designed for a variety of handheld applications, including cell phones aimed at the enterprise market.

As the name implies, pico projectors are small: tiny enough to be built into a cell phone or plugged into a laptop like a USB dongle, depending on the design a manufacturer believes there's a market for. Backed by major semiconductor vendors such as Texas Instruments (TI), pico projectors bear watching by AV pros because they could affect the market for other types of projectors, including portable units and fixed projectors mounted in places such as conference rooms.

Texas Instruments has adapted its DLP technology to work as a miniature projector small enough to be embedded into devices such as this cell phone, which is about the size of a deck of cards. Pico projectors can produce images up to 70 inches across in completely rooms.

Credit: Courtesy Texas Instruments

Currently, pico projectors are available only as prototypes, but several companies recently have committed to building them. One is Foxconn, a Taiwan manufacturer that builds cell phones for well-known brands such as Apple, Motorola, Nokia, and Sony Ericsson.

In October 2007, TI announced that Foxconn would begin manufacturing pico projection products based on TI's Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology. Foxconn didn't respond to interview requests.

TI, for its part, believes that there are plenty of opportunities. “I think it would be positioned at consumers, as well as enterprises,” says Frank Moizio, manager of the emerging markets business for TI's DLP Front Projection business unit.

SMALL BUT CROWDED

TI also announced its second-generation pico projection technology in October, but it's not the only player in this space. Another is Microvision, a Redmond, Wash.–based company specializing in small display and imaging applications such as cell phones. Like TI, Microvision has lined up partners and potential customers, including Motorola, but so far, no vendor is shipping commercial pico projection products. “We're not aware of anything that's shipping today,” Moizio says.

That nascence makes it difficult to predict exactly what commercial pico projectors will look like, how they'll perform, and what they'll cost. One wild card is the form factor. Based on the announcements thus far, the initial pico projectors are most likely destined for the cell phone market. Then it's a question of if they'll initially be sold as outboard units that plug into a cell phone's USB port — the same way that cameras for cell phones debuted. That's a good possibility for at least three reasons.

  • A plug-in module doesn't add to the cost of a cell phone because it's an accessory. That's important in the eyes of handset vendors and wireless carriers because consumers and business users tend to be sensitive about the cost of a cell phone.
  • It still takes several fiscal quarters to design a major new feature into a cell phone, manufacture them, and get them to market, despite how rapidly cell phones have evolved in terms of features. By selling first-generation pico projectors as accessories, projector manufacturers and their handset partners can speed up time to market.
  • For handset vendors, a plug-in unit is a less risky, less expensive way to test the market for pico projectors than embedded products.

“I would guess that you'd see a mix of ideas come to market,” Moizio says.

Each manufacturer's design strategy also affects performance, which in turn affects whether pico projectors are a niche play or whether they'll siphon off some business from portable and installed projectors. For example, regardless of whether it's embedded or a plug-in unit, power consumption is an obvious concern for pico projection products designed for use with cell phones or laptops. In fact, that's one area that TI says pico projectors need to be refined further before they can be commercialized.



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A Peek at Pico Projectors

Is a projector in the hand worth one in the ceiling? That's one question facing pico projectors, a new breed of projectors designed for a variety of handheld applications, including cell phones aimed at the enterprise market.

The trade-off is between battery power and brightness. “You certainly can put more power into the device to get it brighter, or you can operate it in a mode that conserves power,” Moizio says. “My guess is that there would be multiple mode options.”

For instance, like the backlight-brightness settings on today's laptops and cell phones, pico projectors would let users manage power on their own. At the same time, pico projectors also would have some control over the device they're working with.

“When the unit is in operation, the thing that draws the most power on these mobile devices is the display,” Moizio says.“So when you're operating the projection function, we would anticipate that the manufacturers would turn off the other display. While the projector probably draws a little more power than that other display, it is almost a swap of power that's normally in the display.”

GOOD ENOUGH?

The brighter that a pico projector is, the more practical it will be in the eyes of potential users. In ambient light conditions, TI's second-gen pico projection technology can produce an image about the size of a sheet of notebook paper, Moizio says. But in a room that's completely dark, it can project an image up to 70 inches across.

That performance affects how pico projectors might be used and who would buy them. For users needing a pico projector only to show a quick slide or two, the ability to do so on a wall, tabletop, or whatever surface is available might be attractive to the point that it outweighs the small image size.

Depending on the manufacturer's design, pico projectors also can display content besides PowerPoint slides, such as photos and videos. That ability could be a plus for consumers and business users. A printing equipment manufacturer, for example, might be attracted to the ability to give an employee who has to display a schematic in the field a pico projector cell phone rather than issuing an expensive laptop that could get damaged. It's also an example of how pico projectors could create new markets for projectors rather than competing with portable and installed units. “I think there are separate markets and separate use applications,” Moizio says. “We don't envision it cannibalizing any other technology.”

For both consumers and business users — as well as cell phone manufacturers — pico projectors could be attractive because they offer a way around a long-standing problem: making screens large enough to comfortably view a variety of content types but without making the cell phone big and bulky in the process. A pico projector could give mobile gamers and business users a way to view games and Word documents, respectively, from a cell phone the size of a deck of cards.

“Whatever your phone can display, this projection would display bigger, with higher quality,” Moizio says.



A Peek at Pico Projectors

Is a projector in the hand worth one in the ceiling? That's one question facing pico projectors, a new breed of projectors designed for a variety of handheld applications, including cell phones aimed at the enterprise market.

REPEATING HISTORY?

Although pico projectors have potential in both consumer and enterprise markets, the initial products probably will be aimed at business users. One reason is because as a new technology, pico projectors will carry a price premium that most consumer users likely won't be able to justify. Embedded pico projection products initially would be in business-class smartphones simply because those typically cost $300 and up, a price tag that makes it easier to bury the cost of a pico projector.

The market is also partly in a chicken-and-egg situation: To tap a wide market, the pico projectors need to be relatively inexpensive. But to get down to that price point, there needs to be volume, which is a byproduct of a lot of sales and customers.

At this early point, it's anyone's guess how quickly pico projectors can ride down the cost curve. It's also easy to dismiss them as a niche play, partly because their resolution — at least initially —is lower than what's available from incumbent products.

That's a reasonable assumption, but it also ignores one bit of recent history: The number of camera phones grew from about 3 million worldwide in 2001 to an estimated 1 billion in 2007, according to Strategy Analytics, an independent research firm that tracks the cell phone market.

One reason is convenience: Even though many camera phone buyers already own digital cameras, it's easier to carry one device rather than two. In the case of pico projectors, some users, particularly business travelers, might jump at a device that plugs into a cell phone or laptop rather than carting around a portable projector or hoping that the client has a projector.

Another reason why camera phones took off is performance. Although first-gen models mustered only fuzzy, VGA-quality images, 2-megapixel units are widely available today, along with a few 10-megapixel phones. So one wild card is whether pico projectors can evolve just as quickly, to the point that potential customers don't see performance as the price paid for size and convenience.

All of those questions, along with the need to refine the technology further before it's ready for commercialization, don't faze pico projection proponents.

“It's just a matter of time,” Moizio says. “There's nothing there that's rocket science or a hurdle that can't be overcome.”

Tim Kridel is a freelance telecom and technology writer and analyst based in Columbia, Mo. He can be reached at tim@timkridel.com.


DIGITAL EXTRAS

Point and Click

Get more information about the companies building pico projectors.
Microvision
www.microvision.com
Texas Instruments
www.ti.com and www.dlp.com
Cell Phone Projection
cellphoneprojection.com
Foxconn
www.foxconn.com



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