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Intelligent Machines

Pocket Projectors

Imagine that your mobile phone or PDA had a display the size of a laptop’s but still fit snugly in your pocket. Hardware engineers at several companies are working on miniature video projectors that promise just that. Using projection, “you can make an image larger than the size of the device you carry,” says research scientist Ramesh Raskar of the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA.

Key to the new projectors are lights small enough to squeeze into a PDA-sized gadget but bright enough to display crisp images. Lumileds Lighting in San Jose, CA, has built a prototype projector roughly the size of a pocket camera that employs small, powerful light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to throw an image the size and brightness of a laptop’s screen onto any white surface. The Mitsubishi lab is using LEDs to build an even smaller projector, about the length and width of a credit card.

The first pocket-sized projectors, available within the next three years, will probably be stand-alone accessories priced at $300 to $900, the companies predict, but the ultimate goal is to fit them inside handhelds. And with camera phone owners snapping photos by the thousands – manufacturers will ship an estimated 800 million camera phones by 2007 – a built-in projector that displays photos in larger formats could be a big draw for cellular customers.

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Beyond that, says Adrian Cable, director of Light Blue Optics, a spinoff of the University of Cambridge in England that is developing a holographic miniprojector, “You can imagine a video analogue of the iPod that you could download DVDs into” and use as a portable cinema projector. And that would be infinitely cooler than a pocket laser pointer.

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