Re-Focusing Microvision, Inc.
by David Lashmet
When is a prototype introduction more than what it seems? For Microvision, Inc., the answer is when the new product marks a new focus for the company. The story provides a valuable case study for other display companies that may be stuck in the doldrums.
The story of Microvision's rebirth was first noted at SID's Display Week 2007 in Long Beach this past May, where the company unveiled a wide-angle pico-projector, enabled by its ultra-miniature laser-based display engine, PicoP™. Microvision's PicoP uses three color laser diodes, and it scans an 854 x 480 image with a proprietary 2-D MEMS mirror. More importantly, this compact, power-efficient device fits inside a cell phone – and can project an 80-in. image inside a room.
The breakthrough with the PicoP required a decade of advances with electromagnetic MEMS mirrors at Microvision, as well as side efforts to research electrostatic MEMS mirrors and piezoelectric MEMS mirrors. Parallel advances in the size and efficiency of laser diodes and in Moore's Law boosted Microvision's progress, too. It is clear that 10 years of internal research has reached a tipping point.
Yet, it is equally clear that there's been a refocusing effort at Microvision, one that helped bring PicoP through integrated product development. Microvision's new CEO, Alik Tokman, who joined the company in July 2005, found that the PicoP project was a low priority under previous management. Instead, the company was pursuing 30 other projects – many of which had niche markets, and few of which shared common technology.
A case in point was Microvision's video-camera viewfinder project. Our prototypes met or exceeded all specs set by the contract with a large consumer-electronics firm. But the market for video cameras changed – end users wanted pocket-sized video cameras – and the depth of our prototypes meant that they would not fit into the form factor the market demanded. So a production contract never followed.
Yet it is the mark of a strong re-focusing effort that this engineering work and its intellectual property was not wasted. In practice, the core technology of the viewfinder now powers Microvision's small projector, the PicoP. And all our subsequent product candidates share this same base – with variations according to what the market and end users demand. Today, myriad applications utilize the PicoP: a stand-alone projector accessory that runs on batteries and connects to video iPods; an automotive head-up display (using a PicoP with beam-shaping optics); Microvision's military eyewear (PicoP helps make a daylight-readable see-through color display); and a barcode scanner for mobile-data collection (powered by PicoP's MEMS mirror), just to name a few.
Tokman brought this product-centered focus from General Electric, where he served in the health division. In the GE model, there is strong attention to supply-chain management. Build costs and marketing costs are controlled, and new products follow old ones, to always stay ahead of the competition.
In Microvision's case, the biggest supply-chain issue was with green lasers. Strictly speaking, there are no green laser diodes. Instead, infrared laser diodes have their frequencies doubled, yielding green. And when Tokman came to Microvision, these were merely prototype systems at other firms. Only Corning was on the path to full production. And with no near-term market, it was not entirely clear that Corning would press forward.
Under Tokman's direction, Microvision worked closely with three green-laser manufacturers to assure a robust supply chain. And by Display Week 2007, Osram, Novalux, and Corning had all delivered green-laser light sources for the PicoP. Blue and red laser diodes are readily available. So as Microvision scales up production of its MEMS mirror for the handheld scanner, more risk is retired. Thus, the path to putting a projector in a cell phone is getting shorter and easier.
Besides these business logistics, people matter. Tokman and his management team implemented a flat organizational structure where officer titles are few. Everyone is part of the team – to that end, Tokman introduced "360-degree" performance reviews that provide every employee an opportunity for cross-function feedback and encouragement from their co-workers, tied directly to their individual and corporate goals and objectives for the year.
The results have been dramatic: After suffering from huge attrition in early 2006, not a single engineer has left the company over the past year – in fact, the head count in engineering has doubled! Meanwhile, Microvision shed its in-house manufacturing team. Overall, engineers now comprise two-thirds of Microvision's staff in 2007, up from one-third in 2006. In short, Microvision has made the transition from a research house to a product-focused company.
Now, there is one step left – the road from working prototype to final product. Again, this will be a concentrated engineering effort, supported by outside manufacturing experts. And with the right management, the right team, and the right technology in place, Microvision is poised to put PicoProjectors in cell phones – and in automobiles, in military eyewear, and in portable computers. Microvision has found its focus. And this will change the business of displays. •