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Technology Showcase: Pico Projectors

Oct 8, 2009 2:54 PM, By Jay Ankeney

New products lay the groundwork for a potentially dynamic market.

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3M MPro120 pico projector

3M MPro120

When pico projector technology was first unveiled just a couple of years ago, many wise wags predicted that pico projectors would never be bright enough or have enough battery life to be practical. Now companies around the world are making these mighty mites a reality—both as standalone devices and embedded in mobile phones, PDAs, portable video players, and portable digital devices not yet unleashed.

You mgiht imagine a herd of rampaging teenagers each with his own projection pod slinging images on any surface anywhere, challenging each other with light saber duels of their favorite pet images. And yes, pico projectors will be a boon to traveling salesmen, teachers, and even grandparents who want to share photos of their kids. However, beyond those obvious manifestations, the ability to produce a display that is much larger than the device that created it will also bring a slew of unexpected consequences—and opportunities.

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Almost everyone who gets a chance to experience a pico projector is intrigued by its implications, but predictions of its impact vary widely. In the Aug. 19 issue of Display Daily, published by Insight Media , Senior Analyst Matt Brennesholtz reported that one optimistic component manufacturer predicted sales of 100 million pico projector units per year by 2015. Brennesholtz said other forecasters put the figure closer to 17 million in 2012, and that the market research firm iSuppli pegs the embedded pico projector sales at 3 million in 2013. For 2009 sales, Brennesholtz wrote, “Our expectation is a total of about 350K pico projectors will be sold this year.”

One reason this is such a potentially dynamic market is that there are currently three major competing technologies for the display engines, or imaging chips, and each offers its own benefits. In June 2007, Microvision announced it had signed an agreement with Motorola to embed Microvision’s PicoP display engine into Motorola mobile devices. Microvision’s PicoP projection module uses RGB laser beams reflected off a single mirror etched in silicon that can move in all axes to scan an image onto a screen. Although Motorola never released its own pico projector-equipped product, just last September Microvision announced the commercial introduction of the world’s first laser-based pico projector called Show WX.

At InfoComm 2008, Optoma introduced its first DLP-based pico handheld projector, the PK 101. It uses incredibly tiny micromirror arrays from Texas Instruments called the DLP Pico chipset that get their illumination from an LED light source. In September 2009, Optoma brought out its successor, the PK102, boasting 4GB of internal memory.

The first-generation DLP Pico chipset won the Silver Award at the Society of Information Display’s Display of the Year in May. Earlier this year, Texas Instruments brought out its second-generation chipset (also called the DLP Pico), increasing both power and light efficiencies while shrinking the chip even further.

There is also a third major player in the pico projector sweepstakes. In January 2008, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, 3M unveiled its own MPro110, a mobile pico projector that won the Grand Award in the gadget category of the Popular Science’s Best of What’s New 2008 Awards. At this year’s CES, 3M brought out its second-generation manifestation, the MPro120, based on 3M’s new MM200 light engine that uses an advanced liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) electronic imager and is illuminated with multicolored light emitting diodes (LEDs).

Even this does not exhaust the field, with several other companies pursuing their own schemes for getting big pictures out of miniscule imaging devices. But all of the manufacturers of these little light engines are hoping that other companies around the world will be conjuring up new applications for their technology. Some are still on the drawing board, and many are available initially only in foreign markets.

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