Pico Projection: a Disruptive Innovation Revisited

Disruptive Widescreen.jpg

In a  recent article, Pacific Media Associates (PMA) reported that sales of pico projectors grew 125% year-over-year in Q3 2010 (over 100,000 units for the quarter).  About 51% of those shipments were for products powered by Texas Instruments DLP® technology.  Similarly, iSuppli published a report predicting growth to over 7.3 million units by 2013 (CAGR of 258% from 2008).  Capturing just a small piece of this market could mean big revenue for display engine developers, such as 3M, Aaxa Technologies, and MicroVision, as well as Texas Instruments, who has taken the early lead.


At Picopros, we are certainly watching this emerging technology segment.  We have posted many product reviews and news articles, so we have a good feel for where the industry is going – and it does look promising.  Not too long ago, the “best” pico projectors were 7-10 lumens.  Today, less than two years later, we are seeing many models pumping out anywhere between 15 to 50 lumens – pretty impressive for a battery-powered device.  Not to mention, the display resolution for these new products has steadily increased.  In addition, the connectivity and features of these devices has also grown.  Most pico projectors today offer onboard memory, an internal speaker, and even HDMI connectivity.  The next generation of pico projectors will even offer interactive touch projection, as indicated by TI and NionCom.  Can 3D projection be far behind?


All that said, pico projectors are still seen as a toy by many people.  Most people cite limited brightness, low resolution, and price as the main reasons for limited adoption.  I can personally attest to this, as I have evaluated a number of products.  Many projectors *are* too dim for mass adoption in today’s market, where consumers demand high performance at increasingly lower prices.  Some people (myself included) are paying $300-$600 USD for pico projectors that are only useful in controlled lighting environments and require the use of all types of cables and adapters.  But, the typical consumer is not going to want to deal with all that.  And, to date, they have largely chosen not to.




However, many overlook the power of disruptive technology.  In the groundbreaking book The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen describes some similar scenarios where the established technology providers watched as their businesses were radically changed by unforeseen technological advances.  One example he uses is the floppy disk drive. 




From Wikipedia:


“The floppy disk drive market has had unusually large changes in market share over the past fifty years. According to Clayton M. Christensen's research, the cause of this instability was a repeating pattern of disruptive innovations.[7] For example, in 1981, 8 inch drives (used in mini computers) were "vastly superior" to 5.25 inch drives (used in desktop computers).[4] However, 8 inch drives were not affordable for the new desktop machines. The simple 5.25 inch drive, assembled from technologically inferior "off-the-shelf" components,[4] was an "innovation" only in the sense that it was new. However, as this market grew and the drives improved, the companies that manufactured them eventually triumphed while many of the existing manufacturers of eight inch drives fell behind.[7]


There are plenty of examples of this through history, including:  mini steel mills, hydraulic excavators, digital photography, and countless others.  I would add pico projection to this list.  Yes, today’s offerings are limited, but I see that changing rapidly over the next two years.



Brightness and Power Consumption:


Although several manufacturers offer battery-operated pico projectors, the current devices are power hogs.  Most of these products currently use batteries that range from 1600-2400mAh and last just 1-2 hours at best.  A sure sign of power inefficiency is the fact that many of these devices get warm – or even hot – during use, requiring cooling fans and intricate venting.  Further, these inefficient light sources have limited how bright manufacturers can design their products due to overheating concerns and excessively short battery life.


This will be addressed through improved performance of LED and laser technology – the two main lighting sources for pico projectors.  It seems a week doesn’t go by where someone publishes a new article related to higher-performance LEDs.  Improvements in the associated electronics are also playing a part in efficiency gains.  Similarly, laser-based pico projectors will benefit from steady advances in solid state laser developments.  The long-awaited green laser diode is expected to be in mass production later this year.  Additionally, manufacturers are even improving red and blue laser diodes to further enhance laser-based pico projection.  Advances such as these will help address the power consumption issue.






They majority of battery-operated pico projectors deliver WVGA (854 x 480) resolution or less.  Some of the small plug-in models can handle higher resolutions, such as the XGA (1024 x 768) offered by the Aaxa Technologies M2.  Nevertheless, consumers want HD in a battery-powered pico projector.  As applications like Netflix and other services become ubiquitous in mobile devices, DVD-quality projection will not cut it.


PhotobucketNot to worry, HD pico projectors will be coming soon.  Texas Instruments has recently announced HD pico chipsets, as well as Syndiant, who expects to have HD display engines in production this year.  Advances in MEMS mirror design and improvements in projection engine design are enabling superior resolutions from smaller display engines.






As we said earlier in this article, many pico projectors are already vastly improving connectivity options.  The newest models, in many cases, are capable of VGA, composite, and even HDMI video input.  Also, many have onboard SD memory card slots and even a full-Size USB port, in the case of the Aaxa L1 v2 laser pico projector.


As we move forward, we will see further advancement in connectivity.  Bluetooth and Wifi connectivity will become standard for pico projectors.  The 3M MP180 has already adopted these features.




Differentiated Features:


The future of pico projection will include some unique features.  Projected keyboards and projectors that correct the image based on surface conditions are not out of the question.  One of the most recent advancements, as we mentioned above, will be available in Q2 of this year is Interactive Touch projection.  Essentially, this technology allows the user to manipulate and interact with projected content – without ever touching the projector.  This is accomplished, in the case of the NionCom Vision tablet, via a photodiode and the MicroVision PicoP® display engine.  Pretty amazing stuff for a handheld device.



Considering the advancements made in recent years, pico projection holds a lot of promise.  To date, these products have received mostly skeptical consideration.  However, a holistic look at the technological advancements being made in the space point toward a much brighter future than some would predict.  I wonder what Clayton Christensen would say?

Archived Comments....

It seems to me that the focus is / remains on smartphones and associated apps.  When smartphones have embedded projectors, the market will soar.  I think the reason that stand alone pico projectors haven't become the next big thing, is that 1., no one is advertising to the masses and 2., the masses are buying smartphones -- and smartphones seem to be the all-in-one solution for most people.

Future cockpit builders (gamers) going buy it instantly once it goes fullHD & 120hz...

Great article.  The older you are the more experience one has with this disruptive technology.  My first experience with a computer was in the late 60's on the IBM 360, which was the size of a small refrigerator. My next computer was portable, an Osborn, which was the size of a large briefcase.  It took about 12 years to go from refrigerator to briefcase size.  Today we are able to put more computing power in our shirt pocket than the Russians had for the first man in space.  Whereas in the near past the changes took a couple years to take hold, today they only take a matter of months.  It is much harder for young people to grasp what is happening, they haven’t seen where we are coming from and have a hard time imaging the future.  It wasn't so long ago that people thought that the horseless carriage was a fad.  When I was a kid my aunt took me to downtown Seattle in her car, which had to be cranked by hand to start. The Microvision PicoP Display Engine is a good example of a product in it's early form that has undreamed of potential in as yet never seen applications.  It is easier to see the future, if you have lived the past.


The funny thing about pico projectors is the young crowd. I believe it will be the young crowd that drives this market, but for some reason they're not getting the news.  Not one kid (15-25) I've asked even knew about pico projectors. For that matter NOT ONE adult I have mentioned them  knew about them either.  I would have expected by now for the kids to at least KNOW about picop projectors. Word of mouth isn't working, or the present ads.  So who's buying them now? It surely isn't kids. It might come down to their cell phones and embedded for the kids to catch on.  

I don't disagree with your observations.  My thinking is that, once there is enough utility and differentiated features, people will begin mass adoption.  More over, embedded projectors will really help drive adoption.  Once a pico projector starts to become a feature in mobile phone - especially - I think we'll see more demand.  This is a 2012 event, in my opinion.




Paul Marganski

Co-founder and Contributor

Email: paul@picopros.com

Twitter @pmarganski



2012 IF (and it's a big IF) the DGLs are available, cheap and efficient right out of the gate. In a handset they don't have to be too bright.  Could be 2013 for embedded. 

For laser-based pico projectors, yes.  For LED-based ones, I expect 2012 to be a big year as well.



Paul Marganski

Co-founder and Contributor

Email: paul@picopros.com

Twitter @pmarganski