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Pico-projection conjures $350m III-V market

Luminus Devices and Osram Opto look set to benefit from the market for tiny projectors, but numerous formats mean opportunities abound for laser diode and LED manfacturers.

So-called “pico-projectors” are expected to emerge as a substantial market for semiconductor light emitters over the next five years. But what are pico-projectors? Well, firstly they are gadgets for projecting images directly from your portable device onto a wall. Secondly, and more importantly to compoundsemiconductor.net, they will consume up to $350 million worth of LED and laser chips annually by 2012, with the first products set for release later this year.

That s based on the latest research from Insight Media, which expects to see 30 million pico-projectors sold globally in 2012, making a $3.5 billion overall market. Matthew Brennesholtz, a senior analyst at the company, says that solid-state light sources will comprise a “non-trivial fraction” of this figure that might reach as high as 10 percent.

“The first pico-projectors to be introduced will certainly have LED illumination,” said. “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 one square millimeter will be deployed in the first pico-projectors on the market, due out in the second half of 2008. These will use an optical module made 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,” said 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.”

Easy as RGB
The use of white LEDs is unusual in projector systems, as every other approach exploits illumination by a combination of red, green and blue light sources. So, although Brennesholtz says virtually any high-brightness LED could be used with the 3M module, the rest of the market better suits companies who have specialized in illumination for projection.

“Luminus Devices and Osram are the two primary companies that have focused efforts on the projection market with their LEDs,” points out Brennesholtz. He says that 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, for example (see related stories), 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 a company called Microvision, while an Israeli company called ExPlay is combining both lasers and LEDs.

When pico-projectors first hit the market later this year they will sell for up to $400 per unit, but prices will 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.

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