Fast Forward: Picoprojectors

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In August, Nikon introduced the world’s first digicam with a built-in video projector. The Coolpix S1000pj has a tiny projector—called a picoprojector—that can display photos and videos at 640x480-pixel resolution. In a dark room, projected images are visible up to six feet away, up to 40 inches wide.

Although picoprojector technology has been appearing in small video projectors and a few other devices, the S1000pj moves this revolutionary technology into a mainstream consumer product. Soon, “embedded” picoprojectors will be everywhere.

An embedded picoprojector is one that’s built into a device other than a stand-alone video projector. Digital cameras, video camcorders, and camera-equipped cell phones are obvious candidates. Embedded picoprojectors will probably become as common as webcams in notebook computers. Hand-held videogames, media players, portable TVs, and ebook readers are additional possibilities. Picoprojectors will be used for advertising displays, vehicle entertainment systems, heads-up control panels, and other applications that can benefit from their space-saving properties.

Several companies have been working on picoprojector technology for years. Texas Instruments uses LEDs with millions of movable micromirrors to project the image by reflection. Microvision uses red, green, and blue lasers with an oscillating mirror to scan the image onto the screen. Nikon uses liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) technology instead of micromirrors, and LEDs instead of lasers. The picoprojector in the Coolpix S1000pj has a brightness rating of 10 lumens.

By comparison, my Kodak Carousel slide projector from the 1970s is rated at 525 lumens. It easily projects a 35mm slide onto a five-foot-wide screen from 20 feet away. But the bulb dissipates a scorching 300 watts—enough to melt the little Nikon camera in minutes.

Because picoprojectors rely on the much smaller, cooler light sources of LEDs or low-power lasers, they can’t yet match the brightness of old-fashioned projectors. But they have an advantage that, in time, will make up the difference—they concentrate all their light into a highly directional beam. A slide-projector bulb radiates light in all directions, wasting most of it.

Embedded picoprojectors are a game-changing technology, like LCD screens. Someday we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report .

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