What Are We Supposed To Do With Pico Projectors?

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LG-expo phone pico projector
The LG Expo brings projection to mobile phones…but can it project more space into my pocket?

The age of pico projectors has officially arrived with their huge presence at CES, and the first projector phone, the LG Expo, going on sale in the US. There was even a pico projector film festival in January, where movies were screened on ice sculptures and bare backs. Pico projectors are either hand-held projectors, or projectors embedded in small electronic devices such as cell phones. They attempt to address one of the biggest problems in electronics, which is that smaller is better…except for screens. The tension between what our handheld devices are capable of doing versus what they are capable of showing through their interfaces grows stronger every year. Whether pico projectors are the answer to that problem remains to be seen.

LG is first out of the gate with a pico projector that attaches to their new LG Expo. The attachment retails for $179 and projects a 480 x 320 image up to 9 feet away. Reviews so far say that the picture, which maxes out at 66 inches, looks good. This is only the beginning of course. While the LG projector is a clip-on accessory, future versions will fit into the phone’s form factor.

Using your phone to project a movie onto the wall certainly has a “gee whiz” factor to it, like in the new LG commercial where an office worker is seen projecting Avatar on the wall of the break room. But before we all throw away our big screens, pico projectors have some problems to overcome.

One big issue is sound. If one of the benefits of a pico projector is that you can use a small form factor to share video with a large group of people, getting big sound out is no easier. Battery life is another potential issue. LG doesn’t give a rated battery life in the product specifications page, and they seem to have embargoed that information as it doesn’t appear in any of the reviews so far. Bottom line: it’s unclear how far you’d get into a movie (let alone Avatar) before your phone died.

Pico projectors are also in a bit of a foot race as all of our existing screens get tied in to the grid. For instance, if you were at a party and wanted to share a funny video you took with your phone, right now it might be easier to show it with a pico projector. However, with web-enabled televisions and media center PCs, soon (if not already) you will be able to easily send video to any nearby screen.

And the places without personal screens where you might want to watch something, like airplanes and subways, are often not practical places to project images, particularly if you have any qualms about force feeding your media preferences onto others.

Indeed, the very ease with which pico projectors can be used to create social awkwardness could be a significant feature. Alexander Besher, one of the organizers of the pico projector film festival, thinks there could be significant use of pico projectors in political protests. Picture a nighttime war protest where hundreds of people have pico projectors showing graphic images of devastation on every available surface.

However, the most exciting use of pico projectors might not be doing the things, like projecting movies, that we associate with traditional projectors. Instead, pico projectors could be used for augmented reality functions- projecting the digital world onto the physical one.

To see the most amazing potential applications using this technology, MIT’s “SixthSense” project is the place to look. We’ve reported on SixthSense before, but here is a recent video with even more amazing features, including some iPad-like capabilities achieved using only a pico projector and a sheet of paper.

Whatever its killer app ends up being, it’s certain that we’ll be seeing more pico projectors in the future. Market research firm iSuppli predicts 3 million embedded pico projectors will ship in 2012. Pico projector leader, Texas Instruments, sees them as ultimately being the biggest revenue generator for its DLP division.

As for me, I’m just not 100% sold on the idea, mainly because no matter how cool pico projectors look, it just makes me want a direct brain to computer interface that much more.

[image credits: LG]

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