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High-Definition TV from your Cell Phone

New MEMS technology could lead to dime-sized, high-resolution projectors.

A cell phone that can project a high-definition television image could soon be possible, say researchers at Cornell University who have developed a new microelectromechanical system (MEMS) for rapidly scanning wide areas with a laser. A projector based on the device would be about the size of dime and could cast a meter-wide image on a surface only half a meter away.

A silicon mirror suspended by carbon fibers can vibrate very quickly, scanning a laser across a surface fast enough to draw high-resolution images. (Credit: Michael Thompson, Cornell University)

The key is a small mirror, about half a millimeter across, suspended by carbon fibers – rolled-up sheets of crystalline carbon commonly used to reinforce materials. The fibers amplify the vibrations of a piezoelectric motor, moving the mirror. This movement deflects a laser at different angles, causing it to sweep back and forth across a surface. While the current device only moves the laser side to side, the researchers say it can be easily mounted on a stage that tilts up and down to allow the device to sequentially draw each line of an image, using complex electronics that turn the laser on and off as it is directed across the screen to create the light and dark pixels. A full-color display would mix light from red, green, and blue lasers.

MEMS-based displays already exist in commercial products. Texas Instruments, based in Dallas, TX, for example, has developed a chip that uses millions of tiny mirrors, each of which turns pixels on and off by either turning toward or away from a light source (see “May the Micro Force Be with You”). This chip is now used in a variety of televisions and movie projectors. Another company, Microvision, in Redmond, WA, uses a single mirror MEMS device more like the one being developed at Cornell, but without the carbon fibers. The company is developing a full-color display.

The Cornell researchers say what sets their device apart is the high scanning speed of the mirror, combined with its ability to scan over a wide angle. The wide angle of the system is made possible, says Michael Thompson, a materials science and engineering professor and one of the researchers on the project, because the carbon fibers can bend sharply without breaking, giving the mirror a wide-range of movement. The fibers are also very stiff, which allows them to spring back and forth very quickly. High-speed vibrations are essential to creating high-resolution images. The researchers report mirror vibration frequencies of 35,000 cycles per second – enough, they say, to scan an image with a resolution of about 1280 by 768 pixels about 60 times a second. They say this resolution is comparable to some high-definition televisions, although this refresh rate can – under some conditions – show a detectable flicker.

Ming Wu, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says that in addition to high scanning speeds, the resolution of an image depends on the size of the mirror used. In the past, he says, mirrors large enough to produce high-quality images, on the scale of a few millimeters across, have been a challenge: it’s difficult to make the mirrors vibrate fast enough without breaking the apparatus. Thompson says the tough carbon fibers have allowed them to use a mirror half a millimeter across, already about the size-scale needed. He adds that by using more carbon fibers, the Cornell researchers expect to be able to increase the size even more.

A key challenge for the fiber-based systems will be keeping manufacturing costs down. In the past, researchers have typically tried to make such devices purely out of silicon to take advantage of inexpensive manufacturing.

Adding carbon fibers to the mix could increase costs. With this in mind, Thompson and Shayaan Desai, a doctoral student at Cornell who was key to creating the device, developed a manufacturing method that uses traditional silicon fabrication until the final steps, introducing the carbon fibers only at the end of the process.

Still, the process is not yet reliable enough for large-scale manufacturing. (In the demonstration system they placed the fibers manually). Wu says success will depend on how much new infrastructure manufacturers have to install to incorporate the fibers.

Thompson says a prototype projector should be ready within a year, with commercial products, developed by their startup, Mesmeriz, in Ithaca, NY, likely possible in three to five years.

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