Shine a light

It was all going so well for miniature projectors. Then the recession started.

Few products illustrate the extent and consequences of the world's economic reversal as well as the picoprojector: a movie projector designed for inclusion in handheld devices such as phones.

At Cebit and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last year, standalone concept designs for picoprojectors had the gadget hunters all of a flutter, and their rapid integration into mobile phones seemed inevitable. At the time, US research group Insight Media "conservatively" forecast that 30 million handsets would incorporate an embedded projector by 2012. To put that figure into context, it suggested an adoption rate akin to that for the PC-lite, the current darling of the consumer market.

"Well, it would be BS to say that things haven't changed," acknowledges Matt Nichols, director of communications for Microvision, one of the three technology suppliers competing over the picoprojector space. "We've had to adjust our numbers down and we're sure everyone else has had to do the same."

Cebit and CES 2009 still saw some fuss around picoprojectors. So did this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) where Samsung launched the i7410, a phone that features a projector based on Texas Instruments' DLP technology and that ships later this year. But the pace has definitely slowed.

Why a Picoprojector?

The idea has a lot going for it. Watching video on a handset is hardly pleasant. Picoprojectors can break the confines of a typical handheld screen. Media can then be shown on, in a typically lit room, a screen roughly the size of a sheet of A4 paper or, in a darkened room, across 30in.

The core technology has been around for a while. TI's Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology has been in HDTVs and cinema projectors for almost a decade now. Microvision has been providing heads-up displays to military specification with its technology for even longer. And the market's other leading player is 3M, which also has a well established background in imaging.

"If we can get the devices into people's hands, they really get it," claims Frank Moizio, DLP emerging markets manager at TI.

Indeed, the technology is already playing to both the enterprise and consumer markets simultaneously, even though one might expect business road warriors to be the early adopters, followed by the YouTube generation.

"We are seeing interest from both," Moizio adds. "You can see what is expected in business. It's the opportunity to share a vision, project a spreadsheet or a presentation - maybe even a video. Yet last week, one of our guys was able to use a cellphone one to watch a two-hour movie on a plane, and there were still three hours of juice on the battery afterwards for normal use."

So the question is, what happens now? How does a severe economic downturn affect a promising technology like this?

At one obvious level, the companies are continuing with pathfinder products because they believe in them. At a more mundane level, there are significant R&D costs to be recouped.

Dell already offers a standalone picoprojector that uses the Pico DLP chipset from TI. Late last year, 3M launched its own MPro110 projector in the US. Microvision aims to launch variations of an in-house and badged product currently codenamed the ShowWX.

These pathfinders fulfil two purposes. First, they take concepts into the market and - their proponents hope - demonstrate that there is real demand for the technology, so that the competitors can ultimately focus on selling chipsets rather than finished products.

"The endgame for everyone here is to be embedded within other OEM partner devices," says Nichols.

Second, pathfinder products let the technology suppliers jockey for position. The i7410 illustrates this. Samsung was originally allied with 3M, whose picoprojectors use a liquid crystal on silicon engine and an LED light, as opposed to TI, whose technology is an LED-illuminated shrink of its micromirror devices. 3M's CEO George Buckley told shareholders about its work with Samsung in May 2008. By Mobile World Congress, however, things had apparently changed. 3M did not respond to requests to comment after the Samsung phone was launched, although the company was keen to talk at CES in January.

The technological fight is taking place across a number of areas, the foremost being power, package, luminescence and resolution. For the true mass market, advances must be made in all three - everything on sale today or likely to be available soon is very much for the early adopter.

Resolution and design

To take the image quality issues first, some of today's equipment is limited by effective QVGA resolution and the images dim rapidly as the image grows.

Nichols says: "Take a PowerPoint - people might be in the 6pt, 8pt, 10pt range and it just isn't going to look good at that level," he says, referring to the font sizes often used for these presentations.

At TI, Moizio agrees, "At those sizes, it's an issue. For that part of the market you need to be able to view the slide content clearly."

At the package level, Microvision is currently claiming an advantage at 7mm. "We see the competition at around 12-15mm. But the point is that you still want to get smaller. One thing that you see from products like the iPhone is that you don't want customers to feel as though they will have to compromise on the industrial design."

How has the economy affected the race to perfect the picoprojector?

"Companies that are interested are still interested," says Moizio. "Some are delaying their programmes and are cautious about this market, but the designs are still there to be won."

Nichols seconds this view, "The serious opportunities are still serious opportunities - that hasn't changed. What we look at is that the time to volume may be longer for the technology," he says.

"At the same time, we are talking mobile phones and a market size in the $1bn range, so it's always going to be attractive and there will always be opportunities," adds Moizio.

Nevertheless, there will be an inevitable attrition in the picoprojector-component market. The different strategies that TI and Microvision are adopting acknowledge this and this also reflect their sizes and branding.

"We're comfortable that we came into this sector with a leadership position in projection overall, particularly for the consumer market," says TI's Moizio. "We already have relationships with the major players and we've got major OEMs and brands like Dell already using our technology. Yes, times are hard, but we are comfortable with where we are right now."

Meanwhile at Microvision, Nichols acknowledges a more phlegmatic stance. "When this market first opened up, we wanted to be in there first. The truth, though, is that we didn't have the supply chain that the other companies already had in place. They were in consumer, we weren't," he notes. "However, given how things have got, maybe being first isn't where we'd want to be. Maybe it's better for us to see how some of this plays out."

Ultimately, through their high volumes, the leading handset OEMs will effectively nominate a victor. But how they will move is still unclear. Samsung has partially shown its hand, none of the other major players contacted by E&T would even commit to some form of early adopter projector-phone. Nokia acknowledged interest in the technology but expressed reservations about battery consumption.

How things have changed. Once, it only took one major handset player to introduce a function and all the others would loudly proclaim that they were looking at doing the same - it was all so much about fashion. Now, everything is about value and paring the bottom line.

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