New Era: A Sea Change in the Front-Projection Industry

A perfect storm of new technology and changing user demands is creating new applications and solutions with the potential to transform the front-projection market. Here is a look at the latest developments.

by William Coggshall, Michael Abramson, Candace Hogan, and Alfred Poor

AS TECHNOLOGY moves forward ever more rapidly, it is often not easy to see changes clearly when immersed in the mesh of developments that may not always seem related. At some point in history, for example, a buggy-whip maker woke up and thought for the first time, "Am I working at a dying business?"

Certainly, the front-projection-display industry is not going the way of buggy whips – at least not in the foreseeable future – but the traditional markets are stagnant. Front projectors have achieved broad penetration in their key markets, such as portable and fixed-installation meeting-room and educational installations. The potential for new sales is limited, and it is difficult to make a mint just on replacements. Success today typically requires growth. This can be achieved through increased sales in existing markets. A few bright spots show potential – wide screen, short throw, and digital cinema – but these are not enough to power the entire market.

The other avenue to growth is through change. New ideas open new markets, which can lead to significant growth. It is clear that the projector industry must embrace change in order to take advantage of new opportunities. A perfect storm of new technology and changing user demands is creating new applications and solutions with the potential to transform front projection as profoundly as the microprocessor changed computing from mainframes to notebooks.


Fig. 1: The New Era front-projector market is expected to grow rapidly over the next 5 years. (Source: Pacific Media Associates.)


William Coggshall is the founder and President of Pacific Media Associates, 1060 Siskiyou Drive, Menlo Park, CA 94025; telephone 650/561-9020, e-mail: coggshall@ Michael Abramson is Vice President and Candace Hogan andAfred Poor are Senior Research Associates, all at Pacific Media Associates.


A New Era

In general, the "New Era" front-projection devices are relatively small and dim compared with traditional front projectors and have low power consumption and are low in cost. Different makers have chosen different combinations of technology, but the main common thread in all the products is that they are below 500 lm in luminance. These can be divided into two large categories: Gaming and Personal, and Mini-Projectors. While both are in their infancy at this point, we have already seen rapid acceleration in market growth and expect that to continue (Fig. 1). Although shipments totaled fewer than 18,000 units in 2006, they are expected to top 6.5 million units by 2011.

These New Era products will make new applications possible because a truly tiny projector engine can produce a picture large enough to be useful or entertaining. By their very nature, they can solve problems that are difficult for competing technologies, such as direct-view flat panels or electronic paper. Any flat surface – a wall or even a sheet of paper – can become a large display for one or more viewers.

Enabling Technologies

The key to the New Era products is the range of recent technology advances in imagers, light sources, and optics. In various combinations, these developments make it possible to create devices that only existed as speculation just a few short years ago.

Consider the imagers, for example. Certainly, the refined and proven technology of the microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) Digital Light Processor (DLP) from Texas Instruments has helped developers expand the limits of what makes up a front projector (and there are more MEMS developers of imagers that produce an array of pixels waiting in the wings). Advances in liquid-crystal–on–silicon (LCoS) panels have also added high-speed high-resolution tiny imagers to the designer's toolkit. Single-chip LCoS imagers are now being produced by many companies, such as Aurora Systems, Displaytech, and SpatiaLight. Novel imaging devices are also entering production, such as a micro-opto-electromechanical systems (MOEMS) imager from the Fraunhofer Institute and Microvision that scan a light source in two axes to produce an image. Looking across all technologies, these microdisplays have diagonal panel sizes ranging from 0.55 in. for a DLP chip down to less than 0.05 in. for the scanning micromirror imager from Fraunhofer (Fig. 2).

These imagers are fast enough to support field-sequential full color. Rather than combine the images from three separate imagers, the single panel is illuminated with red, green, and blue light in sequence. The human vision system then reassembles those three images to create a full-color image. This eliminates the need for the bulk of an additional two imagers and related optics, though there is the risk of flicker from interference patterns (such as from fluorescent lamps) and field break-up if the refresh rate is not fast enough.

Engineers have new lighting sources to consider as well. Inorganic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have undergone steady improvement in recent years, delivering better-quality color, increased light, and improved power efficiency. Last year, Cree demonstrated an LED demonstrating more than 130 lm/W. They are mass-produced in enormous volumes, driving down the costs to the point where they are practical light sources in flashlights and other inexpensive devices. They are also suitable for the low-brightness and battery-power requirements of very small projection engines. The newer high-brightness LEDs from companies such as Lumileds Lighting, Luminus, and OSRAM provide even more light from small energy-efficient packages. For example, Luminus has a PT54 module that is capable of producing 1400 lm, combining the output from separate red, green, and blue LEDs.


p35a_tif Texas Instruments

Fig. 2: The DLP chip from Texas Instruments plays a central role in many of the New Era product designs.

p35b_tif Corning Incorporated

Fig. 3: Miniature lighting devices having a total volume under 2 cc – such as this green laser from Corning Incorporated – have sparked the development of new, tiny projectors for a variety of applications.


Perhaps the most powerful enabling technology is the development of new, miniature diode lasers. Corning, Novalux, OSRAM, and others have developed products designed for use in small front projectors. Red- and blue-laser models are now available in small sizes at reasonable costs, though additional work remains for some of the green-laser designs (Fig. 3). For example, Novalux has developed NECSEL laser arrays that fit 15 emitters in a 1 x 5-mm array. In order to fit into a mobile phone, the projector engine must be less than 10 cc in volume. This means that the light source must be 2 cc or smaller (assuming that separate red, green, and blue sources are used).

Lasers have plenty of power at this point, although additional work is needed in manufacturing yields, supply-chain issues, and overall cost. All of these problems are likely to be resolved through increased demand and the experience gained through volume production. Projected laser images also need to deal with speckle, which appears to be more pronounced with scanning mirror displays than with microdisplay array chips such as DLP or LCoS imagers.

Lighting for New Era projectors can also rely on existing technology. In cases where the bill of material costs must be kept to an absolute minimum and small size is not as critical a factor, designers are using standard ultra-high-pressure (UHP) lamps, or even metal halide or halogen bulbs.

By combine all this with the recent advances made in miniature optics, improved batteries, higher-capacity flash RAM for increased storage, wireless communications, and other technological developments, a toolkit of components that make it possible to create an entirely new range of imaging devices for new applications is available. Prices for some types of memory fell as much as 35% in just 3 months last spring. Developments are proceeding rapidly in many directions at the same time, making it difficult to track and compare progress toward new products. Imposing some structure on the market is essential in order to be able to discuss developments. These new devices and applications can be divided into two large categories: (i) mini-projectors and (ii) gaming and personal projectors, and these can both be further broken down into three sub-groups (see Table 1).


The range of the mini-projector categories for rapidly evolving applications all share one feature in common: they are intended either to be powered by a battery or have battery power as an option. These break out logically into three sub-groups.

Stand-alone and docked models are intended to connect to some other device for the source signal. A small handful of stand-alone products are already on the market. These have essentially replicated the function of the larger, classic front projector, but on a smaller scale with battery power. Initially, these will fulfill classic functions such as presentations, but the volume market will be for consumer-electronics products such as portable entertainment devices, connecting with such gadgets as mobile phones, portable media players (PMPs), and digital cameras. These are most likely to be interim solutions, to be replaced by more integrated solutions as they progress. The fact that they are separate devices will make them more cumbersome to use, but they have the advantage of being stand-alone items that only require a standardized connection to a signal source. They will be smaller than traditional units, but not nearly as small as the more integrated devices will be.

Docked modules will appear as accessories for mobile phones, portable media players (PMPs), and digital cameras. These will allow the user to project a large image using content from the host device, so that it can be viewed and shared by two or more viewers at the same time. One problem with docked designs is that they will have to fit the case of the host device and may well rely on proprietary interfaces, connectors, and other features. This will lead to a proliferation of incompatible designs.


p36_tif Explay

Fig. 4: New Era mini-projectors such as the oio from Explay will make it possible to share images in new ways in familiar settings.

Table 1: New Era projectors encompass a range of new devices and applications

Mini-Projectors Stand-alone and docked models
  Embedded mobile modules
  Embedded modules in large devices
Gaming and Personal Projectors Toy projectors
  Gaming projectors
  Personal projectors



As the acceptance of the docked accessories builds, manufacturers will find it more cost effective to create embedded modules to provide the projection features directly in the device. Prime targets will be mobile phones and video-enabled PMPs, which face steep competition. On the one hand, the extra cost of a projector module could be a significant handicap unless the price increment is kept small. On the other hand, projector features could prove to be a desirable differentiator in a commodity market. At the outset, the challenge will be to create modules that are as small and energy efficient as possible, while delivering sufficient brightness at an affordable cost.

Stand-alone products are already coming to market. A number of "pocket projectors" based on TI's DLP imager are available, producing a luminance of about 50 lm from LED light sources in a 1-lb. package. Iljin Display has made news with the announcement that SK Telecom will begin shiping a tiny projector for mobile phone sets as of September 2007. The design uses a single LCD imager with LED light sources and uses a data cable to connect to a telephone. It weighs about a quarter of a pound and is expected to produce a luminance of 15 lm . Iljin Display has also announced plans to produce embedded projection modules for France Telecom telephones.

Embedded modules under development are based on DLP, LCoS, or scanning mirror imagers. The imagers range is size from 0.05 to 0.2 in. on the diagonal. Light sources include LEDs, lasers, or a combination thereof. The resulting designs are expected to add about one-tenth of a pound or less to the finished device. The initial light output is expected to be 15–25 lm, which is sufficient for small images, especially under dim lighting conditions.

One part of the strategy to make these new devices affordable is to anticipate growing sales volumes. This can mean selling 10,000 units at a discounted price that would be appropriate for a million units. Another approach is to use the components that are available now, and not wait for novel devices that are under development and may cost far more than the alternatives. For example, Explay's original design for an embedded projector module relied on red and green lasers, but added a blue LED light source for the third color to avoid the expense of a costly blue laser. Design engineers will do well to be creative and flexible during these early stages of development for these products.

Embedded projection systems in larger host devices make up the third sub-group. These include modules that might be included in an automobile or airplane for dashboard or head-up windshield data displays and/or passenger entertainment systems. Embedded projectors could also compete with flat panels in digital-signage applications where the target surface might be irregularly shaped or moving. The power-efficiency requirements are not as critical as they would be for a battery-powered application, but the miniature size will make it possible to develop novel uses for displays. The primary challenge here is to deliver a sufficiently bright image. Cost will be less of a challenge initially, as applications such as aviation displays can support higher selling prices than general market products. The costs must be reduced greatly, however, if these devices are to be widely adopted in mass-produced products, such as automobiles where bill-of-material costs are a major concern.

Gaming and Personal Projectors

The other large category of New Era front projectors, gaming and personal projectors, also can be divided into three groups.

At the low end of the price range will be the toy projectors. These will be targeted at pre-teens or even younger users, much like the old Fisher Price cassette player/recorder. The ruggedly built products will be designed to withstand rough handling, and their low-resolution imagers – VGA or less – and luminance of up to 100 lm will be adequate for this audience. They will be used to display entertainment content and for game playing. The Hasbro Zoombox is a bellwether for this group; it includes a DVD player and sells for $300. We expect to see products selling for less than $200 in a year or two.

Older children and young adults who are interested in video games will drive demand for more-sophisticated gaming projectors. These will have VGA or better resolution and luminance in the 300–500-lm range, and the wall-sized image they yield will provide an immersive gaming experience at a fraction of the cost of a flat-panel HDTV of similar size. Users will take these lightweight and portable projectors with them to social events such as network gaming parties. These should be available initially for under $500 in time for holiday gift shopping in 2007, dropping to about half that amount in 4 or 5 years.


p37_tif Philips

Fig. 5: New Era devices will open up new applications, such as low-cost projectors suitable for use by younger children for gaming and entertainment.


The third group in this category, personal projectors, are intended for professional and personal applications for those who have not traditionally been projector users. The typical user – realtor, interior decorator, or beauty-shop salesperson – will likely use them without a laptop computer. The first products in this group appeared at CES 2007. LG is shipping the HS101, an SVGA-resolution DLP-based model that produces 100 lm from LED light sources. It is about 6 x 4.5 x 2 in. and weighs less than 2 lbs.

The New Era is Now

Although the initial products have been business-oriented, the eventual growth in the front-projection sector will come largely in consumer applications. Retail distribution channels will be the key to product success, and it is already evident that competition will be heated in many of the application areas.

It is clear that the growth for the front-projection industry lies in the New Era products. Consumers have demonstrated pent-up demand for enhanced individual or small-group viewing experiences. Low brightness and moderate image size are appropriate for the typical environments where the user will have control over the viewing conditions. A bedroom wall can become a movie screen. A school hallway can become an ad hoc location to view snapshots. TV shows or sporting contests can be viewed on any blank space. And it can be accomplished with a device that fits into a pocket – that's something that no flat panel will ever do.

These New Era products mark a major departure from the traditional front-projector display-industry products. Some of the established companies will recognize the opportunity present in these new designs and applications and will take part in the huge growth of this market segment. Other companies may choose to stick to familiar ground and will continue to focus only on the standard projector designs. And this flux in the marketplace will likely open opportunities for new players to enter the front-projector industry, perhaps to become major New Era brands in their own right.

One conclusion is clear: New Era products represent a major source of growth for the front-projector market, and projector manufacturers must decide what their role in this new market will be. •