It just may be the coolest technology you haven't yet heard about. "Pico projection" refers to tiny modular projectors capable of displaying still or moving images onto a nearby surface. The units are so small they can be embedded into a smartphone, camera, laptop or tablet computer. First introduced in 2003, they are quickly gaining in quality and functionality.
Money is pouring into the technology, as companies as diverse as 3M, Texas Instruments (which makes the "digital light processing" chips used in many pico projectors) and Disney devote major R&D resources to it, and a number of startups with suitably science fiction-sounding names are attracting serious venture capital.
Technology pundits are already calling pico projection a "disruptive technology," which is high praise for the relatively new concept that is still seen as little more than a novelty. While the technology has been treated as marginal or downplayed by the general science press, many see potential in the ability of enabling a handheld device to project images the size of a standard monitor -- or larger. A relatively small projector, for example, can produce an image measuring more than seven feet on the diagonal.
This has obvious applications in video gaming. Using a smartphone or tablet as a controller, it would be possible to play the latest downloadable game larger than life without the expense of a mammoth flatscreen monitor. The device and its embedded projector could fit in the consumer's pocket or briefcase.
Not only is the image quality improving rapidly, but the technology soon will become interactive. In the recently published "Proceedings of the 24th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology" (Santa Barbara, CA, October 16-19, 2011) Microsoft researcher Chris Harrison detailed the technology behind what he calls the Omnitouch. The wearable unit, although appearing ungainly in its current state, neatly combines a pico projector with a sophisticated motion detector. The result is a projected image that can be manipulated by the user in a manner analogous to the iPad or iPhone's capacitive touchscreen. Omnitouch makes almost any surface interactive.
"The technology started to emerge around 2007. And over the last four years it's made some impressive strides," said Paul J. Marganski (pictured here), who is cofounder and contributor to Picopros.com, a website that details the technology. "It's still pretty cutting-edge, but it's rapidly developing. As far as I can tell, we're talking very rapid growth over the next three to five years.
"I believe it will replace monitors for certain applications, such as advertising," Marganski continued. "And it can do mobile gaming imaging. People are going to adopt the projectors because of portability. They'll be able to play Angry Birds on a 100" screen projected on a wall, a floor or any other surface."
If Marganski's version of the technology's future progress seems optimistic, he has good reason for his dramatic predictions. During the last E3 technology exposition in Las Vegas this past June, MicroVision, Inc. unveiled its new SHOWWX+, a projector made specifically for mobile gaming. Capable of projecting an image onto virtually any surface measuring as much as 9 feet diagonally, it is designed to provide what the company calls a "larger than living room" experience. Made specifically for Apple products, the SHOWWX+ plugs directly into personal media players such as iPods, iPhones and iPads and other mobile phones, handheld gaming consoles and other devices that offer TV-out or VGA connectors.
"Touch projection will eventually do everything your iPad can do," said Marganski. "You'll be able to enter and view information. There will be swipe and pinch functions and multi-finger functions. The technology exists, so right now it's about packaging it into a consumer-friendly form factor at a consumer-friendly price."
But the technology's future development is not all smooth sailing. There are several different technologies competing for the pace position. MicroVision's system, for instance, is laser-based; other companies use diodes. Whether one technology will gain prominence -- and thus a clear market advantage -- remains to be seen. Moreover, image brightness at present often is not as good as it could be. But for a technology that was viewed as an expensive novelty or niche product just a few years ago, which many now extol as "transformative," these seem minor quibbles.
For coin-op, what looks like an inevitable technological jump is a good news/bad news scenario. The ability to project interactive games, juke menus and advertising onto bar tops, tables, floors, walls and even pool tables offers extensive potential for profits and creativity. On the other hand, the industry may find itself in a situation where consumers increasingly carry their entertainment into what were once profitable locations.
How soon pico projection technology will hit the market in a big way remains to be seen. The most optimistic experts, such as Marganski, think it's just a few years away. Others extend the timeline further into the future. As the eminent sage Yogi Berra was reported to have said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."