IMAGE: Lenovo smartphone uses a laser picoprojector.
Back in 2009, LG released the first picoprojector smartphone combination, the LG eXpo. This smartphone was sold by AT&T and the picoprojector was sold as an add-on for an additional $180. In the years that followed, several other smartphones emerged with self-contained pico projectors, as did a few tablets and even some cameras. The picoprojectors typically added at least $100 to the price of the device, and the brightness and picture quality of the projects were never great. The pico projectors used LED sources and used either TI’s Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology or an Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) shutter to produce the projected image.
What doomed picoprojectors was their relatively high cost and the fact that while wireless operators were subsidizing the higher cost of smartphones with pico projectors, the picoprojectors provided no additional revenue for the wireless operators.
In the last few years, picoprojectors have all but faded away in smartphone--at least until the Lenovo Techworld event in Beijing last week where Lenovo showed off a pre-production smartphone containing a laser pico projector. Not only can this phone project an image on a screen, but if you stand the phone up on its end using its built-in stand and flip a lens around at its top, this smartphone can project a virtual keyboard on a hard surface, while reading back your finger positions. Even better, any image can be created, resulting in a virtual touch screen on the surface in front of the phone.
The Lenovo smartphone uses a micro projector that is less than 5 mm thick, while still incorporating red, green, and blue lasers, lens, and micro mirrors. Lenovo hasn’t said if they created the micro projector themselves or if it’s purchased from another company, but several companies do produce laser picoprojector modules, including Microvision (Redmond, WA) and Compound Photonics (Durham, England).
The total worldwide picoprojector market was less than 9 million units in 2014 while at the same time more than a billion wireless phones were sold. Could the introduction of the first laser picoprojector in a smartphone be the beginning of a new trend? Possibly.
When picoprojectors first appeared in smartphones in 2009, the growth in both the number of phones and the features in phones were both growing at a frenzied rate. Today, the growth of both phones and features has greatly slowed with wireless operators looking for new ways to attract customers to their networks. In addition, billions of people in China, India, and Africa own a smartphone but not a TV. A laser picoprojector phone could be a cheap form of display, if the price comes down.
LG is the number three smartphone manufacturer after Apple and Samsung, so much rides on the company to win back lost market share. For laser picoprojector module manufacturers, even a mildly popular phone could translate into tens of millions of units, which would rapidly decrease the price of the technology, which could translate into more laser picoprojectors used for other applications, like automotive heads-up displays.
Related article: Eye-safety analysis sheds light on scanned-beam picoprojectors
Allen Nogee is Senior Analyst, Lasers at Strategies Unlimited
This blog was first posted 6/7/2015