Are pico projectors the next big cellphone trend?

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Large flat-screen TVs were all the rage at the Consumer Electronics Show, but companies like Microvision Inc are putting their bets on image viewing of a much smaller scale: projections from devices as tiny as cellphones.

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While commercial products with so-called pico projectors are still relatively rare, Microvision and rivals such as Texas Instruments Inc and 3M Co were promising strong prospects for pico at the Las Vegas show which ends on Sunday.

Microvision showed off a stand-alone projector that looked like a big bar of soap and projected crisp video images using laser technology. Its big hope is to embed the technology in a range of consumer electronics including cameras and phones.

“My feeling is that ultimately the phone is the largest opportunity,” Microvision’s director of communications Matt Nichols said, adding that his company was talking to dozens of potential customers including phone makers.

Nichols sees the first prototypes of gadgets with embedded Microvision pico projectors later this year, and expects the first commercial products some time next year.

After that, he expects the market to explode -- in the same way that cameras have quickly become a must-have component in cellphones.

“We believe that in a five-year forecast, your phones will all have projectors,” Nichols told Reuters.

Texas Instruments, a major supplier of application chips for phones, has its pico projectors embedded in several commercial devices including dedicated mini-projectors and two phones from Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, the latest of which was demonstrated at CES.

“Everybody is just completely jazzed about” pico projectors, said Frank Moizio, manager for Texas Instruments’ pico business. “I don’t know what that translates into in volume. We hope it will be high.”

Since phones already have so many bells and whistles, such as multitouch screens, cameras and music and video players, some analysts question how much room there is to add more components.

But Ovum’s Jonathan Yarmis says pico technology has a huge potential because it solves the problem of video viewing on tiny cellphone screens.

“When you liberate the display from the device, you’ve the opportunity to make the experience more immersive,” the analyst said when asked about the next big cellphone trends.

Others like wireless industry consultant Cheetan Sharma see the mini-projectors turning up in cameras, allowing photographers to share snapshots, before becoming popular in cellphones.

“I think the camera is the first thing and then of course it will migrate to smartphones,” Sharma said, adding that electronics makers also expect demand for pico projectors in laptops for business travelers. “Some people are looking to integrate it into a laptop so they can do presentations.”

Reporting by Sinead Carew; Editing Bernard Orr