July 31, 2008

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Cell phone projector?
Promises and prototypes, but no products yet
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

With mobile computing becoming more and more prevalent, the demand for shrinkage — all right, fine, “miniaturization” — is high. Witness the number of truly tiny laptops and smartphones that can do more than desktops could a few years ago.

What’s lacking is the ability to really see what’s going on. The smaller the device, the smaller the screen. Unless, of course, the device has a tiny projector built right in. Then the physical size of the gadget isn’t an automatic limit on its screen size.

While some companies have offered up solutions that go part of the way, none have anything ready for store shelves. Texas Instruments, for example, has reluctantly shown a few journalists and bloggers its prototype over the last two years. Built into the shell of a BlackBerry, because they can’t fit their hardware and all the normal stuff in there, it projects a passable image a few feet away. Not exhibition hall quality, but OK for impromptu small meetings, and certainly better than five guys in suits huddling around someone’s two-inch phone screen.

In January, 3M announced a half-inch-thick module that could throw a 40-inch, 640 x 480 pixel image on a wall. It hoped to products from cell phone makers out in “early 2008.” Even if something were announced tomorrow, calling August “early” is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

Meanwhile, company called Microvision has a whole section of its Web site (www.microvision.com/pico_projector_displays/) devoted to what it dubs “pico projector” technology. They’ve even demonstrated at electronics shows a prototype of a projector that’s not much bigger than a smartphone. They call it SHOW, and it uses red, green and blue lasers instead of LCDs or LEDs to produce an 848 x 480 image. Supposedly, the image is always in focus, no matter how far away from the screen or wall the projector is.

But you can’t buy one. Oh, and it’s only 10 lumens bright, about 1 percent of a typical projector. Nevertheless, the company seems to be courting cell phone manufacturers. Many impressive illustrations show their PicoP “display engine” integrated into generic-looking phones, and every page offers a hopeful invitation to contact them if you’d like to partner with them, pretty please?

A few more creative companies have taken a page from the old overhead projector. Project-A-Phone (www.projectaphone.com) offers three products that simply sit your phone, iPod, or any small thing with a screen in a cradle with an attached camera. It hooks up to a projector with RCA cables and shows a live video feed of your device’s screen — and bezel and buttons, depending on how well the camera’s aligned. A similar product from NeoChroma that integrated a projector right into itself got some buzz a year and a half ago, but the company’s Web site is now is in “redesign” mode and only states it’s working on some software.

Image quality sticklers can investigate the ShowMate from Impatica (www.impatica.com — “Communicate with Impact”). It also connects to an ordinary projector, using a VGA cable and supporting images up to 800 x 600 pixels. The link to your phone, however, is Bluetooth wireless. It can show specially converted PowerPoint presentations on BlackBerry, Palm, Windows Mobile and Sony Ericsson smartphones, as well as whatever the screen’s displaying on newer BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile devices.

Until the truly pico projector arrives, when you’re on the go, you’ll have to share your phone’s content the old-fashioned way: some creep looking over your shoulder.