17 Mar 2008
Opportunities abound in the tiny projectors market for laser diode and LED manufacturers.
Pico-projectors, tiny devices that project images from portable devices directly onto nearby surfaces such as walls or shelves, will require LED and laser chips worth up to $350 million annually by 2012. Matthew Brennesholtz of Insight Media expects to see 30 million pico-projectors sold globally by then, with the overall market worth $3.5 billion. Solid-state light sources are expected to comprise 10% of this total figure.
"The first products, set for release later this year, will certainly have LED illumination," said Brennesholtz. "Right now, lasers are somewhat too expensive, but by 2012 lasers will be in that market as well."
High-brightness white LEDs with an overall die size greater than 1 mm2 will be deployed in the first pico-projectors when they appear in the second half of 2008. These will use an optical module developed by 3M specifically for pico-projectors, which its customers can then assemble into the final product. "3M will not reveal at this point who their customers are," commented Brennesholtz. "It does not take a whole lot to turn it into a projector, so it could be anybody from Nokia to some Chinese company you've never heard of."
The use of white LEDs is unusual in projector systems, as every other approach exploits illumination based on a combination of red, green and blue light sources. So although virtually any high-brightness LED could be used with the 3M module, the market better suits companies who have specialized in making LEDs for projection applications.
Luminus Devices and Osram are said to be the two primary LED companies that have focused efforts on the projection market, according to Brennesholtz. Osram is offering a module specifically for pico-projection that uses one blue, one red and two green die. Luminus Devices' experience comes from its development of Phlatlight photonic crystal LEDs for the dynamic light projection (DLP) technology that Texas Instruments has developed. This technology has been proven in rear-projection TVs made by Samsung and is being pushed for use in pico-projectors.
"The problem with the DLP is the cost," explained Brennesholtz. "TI has been working on lower-cost DLP devices and they even showed one [at the Mobile World Congress] in Barcelona, but how low is low-priced? Nobody's quite sure."
The most prominent exponent of lasers for pico-projection is Microvision, while an Israeli company called ExPlay is combining both lasers and LEDs.
When pico-projectors first hit the market they will sell for up to $400 per unit, but prices are expected to fall rapidly to around $200. They will be provided as an add-on accessory for existing handhelds, around the same size as an extra cellphone. However, according to sources at a pico-projector manufacturer, the optics are already small enough for integration directly into handheld devices.