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Demo Time: Pico Projectors Show Promise

Mon, 07/25/2011 - 7:22am
Andrew Berg

For some time, the smartphone with an embedded pico projector seemed like a rather dubious proposition, if little more than a bit of crossed fingers and empty promises. Would it be bright enough to project anywhere? What about battery life? How thick would the phone have to be? Would economies of scale be large enough to bring down cost and make it a standard feature?

In one fell swoop, the Samsung Beam, an Android phone with an embedded pico projector that's currently shipping in Korea and Singapore, answered most of those questions for me. Texas Instruments (TI) DLP, the company behind the projector technology in the Beam, sent the demo unit, and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the potential for this technology.

Samsung Beam, An Example
The Beam looks about like an iPhone with a thick case around it. As an Android phone, it's bare bones and comes running Eclaire 2.1 with very little in the UI department. That said, the pico integration is pretty slick. There's a button on the side that turns the pico on and projects anything on the screen – it's that simple.

You can imagine the use cases. Want to show everyone at the dinner table photos from your trip? Bring up a slideshow and project them onto the center of the table. At a conference and need to show a group of investors your company's growth chart? Simply grab it from your smartphone and project it on a piece of paper.

The Beam has a built-in drawing application that allows you to scribble notes on the touchscreen and project them onto a surface. But lend a phone like the Beam some high-end innards and an advanced operating system and the embedded pico projector suddenly becomes a no-brainer.

Frank MoizioIs There a Market?
A resounding yes, and the more you look at it the more you think that market for projection has no bounds. Frank Moizio, business manager for TI's DLP pico projection division, says there are three main drivers on the technology side: hardware differentiation; 4G bandwidth promoting the streaming/projection of content; and the fast maturity of pico technology.

A few years back, AT&T tested the waters here in the United States with a snap-on pico unit for the LG Expo, but the idea was only half-baked and probably priced too high for mass adoption. Moizio says he hopes we'll see the first smartphones with embedded pico projectors in the United States by early 2012, with prices that he hopes hover right around the standard $199 range, adding that all signs point to the kind of fast adoption seen with camera modules in the smartphone.

To be sure, there will be a lot of interest in something like this here in the United States, but Moizio says there's also a huge play to be made in emerging markets, where people might not have a TV but with a pico projector would be able to project movies and the like from their smartphone onto a wall or other surface for viewing.

Bright Enough to Project Anywhere?
I was able to project a crisp 20- to 25-inch picture on a piece of paper here in the office. In a dark room, I was able to get the picture up around 100 inches on both colored and white surfaces with a little blur and oversaturation. What's interesting is that this is just the tip of the iceberg for what TI thinks it can do with pico projectors.

Samsung Galaxy BeamMoizio says that he fully expects brightness to improve to the point where an image can be projected on absolutely anything at all. "We are pushing the brightness metric and other characteristics of this so that it's not limited to a specific screen... Our experience is to drive it everywhere, so that I can shine it on the floor, on the ceiling, on a cabinet, everywhere," Moizio says, adding that a 3D-ready pico projector is already being produced by a company called Vivitek.

What about Battery Life?
The Beam could play a 3-hour movie without needing to be connected to a power source. That's enough to project a full-length movie onto "the tray table in front of you." But at least for now, Moizio says he believes the main use cases for pico projectors will be to share small things – images, videos, PowerPoints – for shorter periods of time, say 5 to 10 minutes at a time. "That ability to share a vision slide or a chart, anything that you think lends to the value of conducting business, would be a major driver in this space."

Revolutionizing Shared Content
Social services are one thing but as it stands, we're all still a little protective of the time we share with our phones. Sure, there's the occasion when we'll pass it around to show friends a photo or app, but on the whole, we pretty much maintain a walled garden around our precious smartphones. That could conceivably change in a very big way with embedded pico projectors, Moizio says.

"If you look at the mobile phone today, it's very much a one-to-one experience. People really don't share information off a phone," Moizio says, noting that a projector makes sharing anything – a Facebook page, a photo, a video, a game – much easier than passing your phone around a restaurant table."

Moizio even uses one of Steve Jobs' favorite words, "magical," to describe the experience of using pico technology. "There is something magical about taking something out of your pocket that's relatively small and getting this 20-inch or 30-inch image and projecting that on the wall or wherever," Moizio says.

A Growing Market
Until I'd actually seen what's possible with an embedded pico projector, I'd not paid much attention to the forecasts for the technology. After having played around with it a bit, I'm not even fazed by In-Stat's numbers that put pico sales over 40 million units by 2013.

Use cases seem slightly tilted toward business users who want to conduct no-hassle presentations on the fly, but I can also see a good number of consumers choosing a unit with pico projector over one without. But the real "magic" may still be in the R&D labs. Imagine if the projection became a two-way interface, mimicking the touchscreen on your phone.

Moizio says that's not just a pipedream. "I think you can pretty much assume that you're going to be able to interact with these images the way you would interact with a display on a tablet or a smartphone. Those capabilities are indeed being put in place," he says.

Before closing our call, Moizio asked me whether I'd consider a pico projector in my next phone. I told him absolutely, but to make sure that Apple gets one in the next iPhone. I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

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