After debating this market a number of times with fellow entrepreneurs and investors I thought I would write down why I’m a skeptic.
Take a look at the following marketing images from some of the well-known picoprojector players. What is wrong with them? They are all photoshop creations. The answer below– and why mass-market picoprojectors are not going to happen…
The problem? While it’s possible to project light, it is pretty tough to project darkness! Apparently, though, that’s happening in each of these “application examples.” Sections of the projected areas are darker than the surface they are being projected on.
For the same reason physically impossible images were used, I believe the general-purpose picoprojector market is a hopeless cause. We love high contrast ratio in displays. LCD manufacturers are using it as a key measure of competition (1000:1 is an absolute minimum these days). Very simply put, contrast ratio is the ratio of the brightest bright to the darkest dark in the image. Unfortunately, when using a projector, the darkest dark is set by ambient lighting.
Let’s stay away from outdoors and pretend we’re using a picoprojector in an office (for those impromptu PPT reviews at the water cooler). The recommended illuminance level in an office is 500 lux, or 500 lumens/m^2. That sets the “dark” level for the contrast ratio. We’ll compare to the iPhone 3GS for which I have decent LCD stats. It has a contrast ratio of 47:1 in high ambient lighting (you’ll agree that’s not a fantastic viewing experience). To achieve the equivalent, we need the picoprojector to provide a luminous flux in bright areas of 46*500 = 23,000 lux at the viewing surface.
Now take a look at the picoprojector specifications. 3M MPro150 ($395) = 15 lumens (among the highest). If you project an image the size of an iPhone screen, you get an 8.5:1 contrast ratio. At iPad size, it’s down to 1.6:1 CR (that means brightest areas are 60% brighter than the darkest).
Besides finding a way to project darkness, the only other approach is to project more light. Unfortunately, one very quickly runs into battery and thermal issues. It’s just easier to present/watch a movie off a tablet.
Does that mean curtains for picoprojectors? No. Most of the suppliers will go away. However, niche applications will emerge for the current architectures. I recently had a funny conversation with someone involved in this industry, who said they were popular among workers living in factory dorms, after lights-out time!
I have been instead looking at a picoprojector architecture that functions in high ambient light environments– but focused on commercial/industrial applications, not doing PPT review or vacation slide shows next to the watercooler.