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The World's Smallest Computers

I have seen the future and it is small. And that's the problem.

Of course, you've seen it too, if you've tried to make out the picture on a cell-phone screen, or type a memo into a PDA with your thumbs. Some of these devices have as much processing power as desktop computers did just a few years ago. But those tiny screens and tinier keypads--I don't think I need say more.

This tiny source of frustration may leave a sizable market niche for firms such as Microvision and Novalux, which hope to put tiny projectors in tiny handhelds to produce big pictures.

We had a conversation with Alik Tokman, Microvision's CEO. "People are still frustated at squinting at two-inch displays," he said. "We're trying to provide a large viewing experience in a small package."

(Computer-generated illustration of cell phone equipped with projector. Image provided by Microvision, Inc.)

There have been all sorts of experiments with screens that roll up into a pen, or fold-up keyboards that plug into a PDA, and they haven't really caught on. Microvision's plan is to dispense with such attachments. They've been working on a laser-based projection system. The beam could be pointed at any nearby surface. The company says the system can create an 800-by-600 pixel image, which is better than television quality. It also means the projector is putting out 28.8 million pixels per second.

They've been showing off a prototype, and the picture isn't bad. It's taken a lot of work to get lasers to put out realistic colors (the laser in a CD player, for instance, is infrared), but they'll doubtless keep getting better.

Tokman says he can imagine people projecting onto walls, tables, or airline seat backs, to share pictures or computer data with others. "Instead of bringing the phone to them," he says, "and saying, 'take a look at these pictures I took on my vacation,' you can point them at the wall and basically show them in much larger format."

Other firms, including a Hong Kong conglomerate called Hutchison Harbour Ring Limited, are marketing "virtual keyboards," projected from a small handheld device onto to a table. If you "type" on the tabletop (or whatever other surface you've chosen), the device will read what letters you wanted to hit. No more fumbling with your thumbs on a PDA. For now, the virtual keyboard is an attachment that you plug in to a handheld. But it's already on sale for about $200.

(Left: a virtual keyboard. HHR, Ltd.)

If such things catch on--and we'll have to see if they do--they could change the way people compute and communicate. For nearly a generation, the laptop has been the paradigm for many uses, simply because it included a full-sized keyboard and a full-sized screen. If both can be virtual, will people keep carrying the real thing? Please weigh in.

We did a version of this for the WNT webcast; you can find it HERE.



  1. You know, even the virtual keyboard mentioned in that clip could be obsoleted by the PicoP. Currently, you still need a flat surface on which to project the keyboard image. However, using this technology (http://www.k2.t.u-tokyo.ac.jp/fusion/LaserActiveTracking/), one could create a virtual keyboard/stylus anywhere in space and the only other element you'd need to add to the package would be a photodetector. Coupled with an HMD, the keyboard image could be displayed virtually on the retina instead of on actual tangible surfaces. IIRC, movie effects studios have been using this same technology for years to allow physical actors dressed in spandex suits with reflective ping-pong balls on them to direct the movement of their virtual counterparts.


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