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Projectors to Magnify Cell-Phone Cinema

Thursday April 3, 2:38 pm ET
By Peter Svensson, AP Technology Writer
Beam It Up: Tiny Projectors to Magnify Cell-Phone Cinema

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Recognizing that it's not much fun to watch movies on a tiny cell phone, a number of companies are racing to develop gadgets that project what's playing on the small screen onto walls, table cloths and other handy surfaces.

"Pico projectors" that are small enough to carry around in a shirt pocket are expected on the market later this year. Eventually, the technology will be tiny enough to be built into phones and portable media players, the companies say.

Microvision Inc., a small Redmond, Wash., company, was at the CTIA Wireless industry show this week to demonstrate a prototype of its projector. It's about the size of two full-size iPods, but by the time it goes on sale later this year, it should be about 30 percent smaller, said Russell Hannigan, the company's director of projector product management.

In a darkened room, the prototype beamed out surprisingly bright, crisp and large video from a connected iPod Nano: With the projector held 6 feet away from the wall, the image measured 6 feet diagonally and was as sharp as a DVD.

On the brightly lit showroom floor, the image was less impressive, but projected on a piece of paper held a foot away, it still made for a nice alternative to the iPod Nano's screen, which is slightly larger than a stamp.

The technology differs substantially from standard projectors: Microvision's unit shines red, green and blue lasers on a rapidly moving, 1-millimeter square mirror, which "paints" the picture line by line, so fast that it blends into one image.

Hannigan said it's highly energy-efficient and allows the company to dispense with the fans and vents that standard projectors have. The goal for the first projector is a 2.5-hour battery life.

Microvision Chief Executive Alexander Tokman expects the projector to sell for $300 to $400 through its partners, of which Motorola Inc. is the only one he was allowed to identify.

The company is also working on a projector so small that it can be built into cell phones, at least the more bulky models. That could be available in the second half of 2009. Because a cell phone already contains a battery and some of the other electronics that are necessary, this unit can be simpler and cheaper -- Tokman estimates it would increase the price of a cell phone by $100.

"The two things people are buying now are cell phones and big-screen TVs," Hannigan said. "This brings those two together."

3M Co. and Texas Instruments Inc. also have prototypes of pico projectors, and may be bringing them to market soon.

Another competitor is Alcatel-Lucent. Randy Giles, director of optical subsystems at the company's Bell Labs research arm, was at CTIA demonstrating a small projector that showed Disney's "Fantasia" from a Nokia N95 phone. The image was smaller and appeared dimmer than Microvision's, but Giles said a prototype that's 14 times brighter is in the lab. He too expects projectors to be built into handsets next year.

Alcatel-Lucent's projector uses lasers, like Microvision, but is otherwise more conventional, using a technology that's similar to liquid-crystal displays to block or let the light through to the screen.

So who would buy a pico projector? Microvision's Tokman said its research indicated that teenagers would be the big market.

"They would rather shut themselves in a dark room and project movies on the walls," he said. "They prefer this to spending time with their parents."

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