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Coming Soon, to Any Flat Surface Near You

April 5, 2008 | Chris Payatagool
Thumbnail image for Samsung MBP-100.jpgTiny projectors may soon cast big images on walls, or even on train seatbacks. At left, a prototype from Iljin DSP, hooked up to a cellphone. At right, the Samsung MBP-100.

By ANNE EISENBERG

TIRED of hearing other people's cellphone conversations? It may become worse. Soon you may have to watch their favorite television shows and YouTube videos, too, as they project them onto nearby walls or commuter-train seatbacks.

Pint-size digital projectors are in the works. These devices, when plugged into cellphones and portable media players, will let consumers beam video content from their hand-held devices to the closest smooth surface - entertaining themselves, annoying their neighbors and possibly contributing to a new warning sign: No Projectors in This Area. The microprojectors, still in prototype, use light-emitting diodes, lasers or a combination of the two to cast a display of up to 50 or 60 inches, or perhaps even wider, in darkened spaces and 7 to 20 inches or so when there is ambient light.

Digital projectors were once bulky. These new models, though, are small enough to fit into the pocket of consumers who want a big-screen experience from a small-screen device. Some of the models are expected to be on the market by year-end, or sooner.


Prices have yet to be announced. Matthew S. Brennesholtz, an analyst at Insight Media, a marketing research firm in Norwalk, Conn., says he thinks the projectors will initially cost about $350, then quickly drop to less than $300.

The projectors may be particularly useful for business presentations - for example, when road warriors need to show a product video to small groups. No coordination would be needed to arrange for a screen. Instead, a patch of wall within a cubicle or restaurant could serve for an impromptu presentation. In a pinch, a manila folder - or even a napkin - would work, too.

Carolina Milanesi, a research director in London for Gartner, the research firm, says she thinks the microprojectors are most likely to appeal to business travelers who, for example, could use them to beam PowerPoint shows from their smartphones.

But Ms. Milanesi is dubious about consumers using them in public, for instance, to project documents on a train seatback because they could so easily be read by others. "I hate it even when I am on the subway and the guy next to me is reading my paper," she said.

The projectors will first appear in free-standing, companion units to cellphones and other devices, Mr. Brennesholtz said, connected to them by standard cables. Later, the projector modules will be directly embedded in phones, as cameras are today. About 16 manufacturers are working on mini-projectors, he said.

Insight Media forecasts a substantial and fast-growing market. "We anticipate total sales of more than $2.5 billion by 2012 for the companion models," Mr. Brennesholtz said, and $1 billion in revenue for projector modules that are integrated into cellphones and other devices.

Cellphone service providers have been a driving force behind mini-projector development, said Jinwoo Bae, business team leader for Iljin DSP, a company in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, south of Seoul, that is working on a prototype. "Revenue growth from voice service is becoming saturated," Dr. Bae said, "so telecom service providers are looking for new revenue from video content."

Iljin DSP's microprojector, which will be marketed and distributed by SK Telecom, a large wireless operator in South Korea, projects images of 7 to 60 inches, depending on a room's lighting; the device's light source is a combination of lasers and L.E.D.'s. The lithium ion battery lasts about two hours, Dr. Bae said.

The company is also building a projector engine to be placed inside cellphones. "We need to reduce the power consumption" of the module, he said. "A stand-alone projector can have its own battery, but modules integrated into a mobile phone use the phone's battery," limiting the amount of power than can be drawn, he said.

A miniprojector engine is now being manufactured by 3M. It will be sold within a stand-alone projector offered by Samsung this year, said Mike O'Keefe, marketing manager for 3M's mobile projection technology. The projector, called the Samsung MBP-100, connects to consumer devices like MP3 players that have video output.

Mr. Brennesholtz of Insight Media was shown a model of the Iljin DSP projector in a restaurant in New York when he met with executives from the company. "I'm not sure what the other diners thought about seeing a Korean sit-com projected on the ceiling of the restaurant," Mr. Brennesholtz said.

As it turned out, there was too much ambient light for the image to look good on the ceiling.

"But on a napkin, or on the cover of a box," he said, "it looked fine."

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