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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.

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.

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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