Projection promise

Dr Chris Harris of Light Blue Optics explains how the Cambridge University spin-out is aiming to make waves in the pico-projection business. Jon Excell reports.

From keyboards so small you can’t type on them, to miniscule headache-inducing video screens, the age of the tiny electronic device is not without its irritations.

There have been numerous clunky efforts to get around these problems (such as those eminently lose-able ‘stylus’ pointers or roll-up keyboards that almost defeat the object of miniaturisation) but few technologies are as compelling as a new breed of tiny projectors that could give everything from your mobile phone to your media player a decent-size, high-quality virtual screen wherever you may be.

According to analysts, ‘pico-projection’ as it is known could be very big business. A recent report estimates that the market could reach 30 million units by 2012. Among the small band of companies poised to launch products into this fledgling industry, Cambridge University spin-out Light Blue Optics (LBO) is confident of making a splash.

Light Blue Optics' pico projection technology could dispense with the need for cumbersome screens

Employing around 40 people at its offices in Cambridge and Colorado in the US, and attracting investment from heavyweight venture capitalists, including 3i, Robert Bosch and Early Bird, the company is preparing to launch its first two products: a mobile-phone-sized consumer device able to project at close range high-quality, touch-responsive virtual screens; and a simpler projection system that is aimed at industrial markets.

According to Dr Chris Harris, chief executive officer at LBO, both devices are now being assembled by an unspecified Asian manufacturer for a number of OEM customers, and the first products will be shipped towards the end of this year.

Harris explained that the technology forms images using interference patterns commonly used to create holograms, but that fundamental improvements to the science of holographic laser projection enables the devices to produce high-quality images. ‘Holographic projection has been around for 30 years or more but has always produced poor-quality images,’ he said. ‘What we have as core IP is a methodology, algorithm and way of implementing that in hardware that allows us to create good-quality images.’

LBO isn’t alone. US firm Microvision has developed a scanning system based on pulsed lasers and mirrors, while Texas Instruments has miniaturised the digital light-processing technology (DLP) used in traditional business projectors. But Harris believes the Cambridge-developed technology has some distinct advantages over its rivals thanks to a design that ensures it is always in focus and that the angle of the light from the projector — the so-called ‘throw angle’ — can be far wider than is possible with traditional technology. ‘A conventional projector has about a 30° throw-angle, which is why it has to sit on a table and you get a big image some way distant,’ said Harris. ‘With [our] projector we can go up to a 180° throw-angle.’ This means that the device can project good-size images at close range, making it suitable for what Harris terms ‘table-down’ projection.

The ability to overlay this image with infrared touch-sensing technology that can detect precisely where a user touches the screen means that the technology can also be used to create virtual keyboards, or to allow users to interact with media.

LBO’s consumer device — based on a prototype that was unveiled earlier in the year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas — is an iPhone-sized media player that will project a 10in diagonal touch-enabled image onto any surface.

The system will generate 10-15 lumens, but Harris said that users will be able to boost the brightness by reducing the size of the projected image; something he claimed represents another advantage over competing technology. ‘If you make a conventional DLP smaller, it doesn’t get brighter — you just block the light off where you don’t want it, so you lose it. Because we effectively steer light to where we want it and away from where we don’t want it, if we make that image smaller, it gets brighter.’

While the wide throw-angle lends the technology to a variety of consumer applications, LBO is also eyeing a number of industrial uses. The company is working with BMW, which recently used the technology to project instrument clusters in its concept Mini, while defence firm Thales is examining its potential in head-up and cockpit displays. Harris also believes the technology could have great potential in digital signage, with the wide throw-angle enabling small wall-mounted devices to project large interactive images.

In the longer term, Harris is particularly excited about the prospect of further shrinking the technology so that it can be embedded in existing electronic devices. While early systems have been developed with off-the-shelf components, Harris and his team are now using $15m of new funding to tailor the design and produce a device expected to be no larger than around 5cm3. ‘We are looking at producing a product that will produce 25-30 lumens output in 1W of power, laptop brightness on a 15in diagonal screen, but within a mobile phone device, which we think transforms the use of projection in those devices.’

Not surprisingly, Harris reports high levels of interest from OEMs intrigued by the commercial potential of the technology and said that he is talking to all of the major handset manufacturers. LBO is expecting to have samples of this second-generation system available by the end of next year, and targeting a product launch for six months later.

But although he identifies mobile handsets as the biggest volume application, Harris said the company is also looking at a range of other consumer applications for the technology. ‘It has educational applications, point-of-sale-type applications — you could imagine having it as a photo viewer so you can share your content; you can imagine it as a video player where you can stop, start or fast-forward by touching a button on the virtual screen.’

Harris added that the technology could be particularly useful on handheld video cameras. ‘Instead of having to hook your camcorder up to the television, you can just have an embedded projector and project a 15in diagonal image and instantly share content. Those are really obvious and exciting applications that provide additional functionality to things such as camcorders that they have not got today. If we get it right, it can really be revolutionary.’