The Laser's Edge

It's the coolest toy you can't get-yet. Researchers are working on movie projectors so tiny they can fit in your cell phone.

By Kevin Maney

Watching N.F.L. highlights on a cell phone might sound like a good idea. But a lot of consumers don't bother, mainly because the minuscule screens make Colts quarterback Peyton Manning appear no bigger than a Tic Tac.

Soon, though, that may change. There is a tiny laser in development that will turn a cell phone or MP3 player into a portable video projector. All the user will have to do is point the gadget at a wall to produce an image the size of a 60-inch TV screen.

Microvision, a 140-employee company in Redmond, Washington, has been quietly working on the laser technology for about 13 years-first while developing hands-free displays the military could affix to helmets. The hard part has been finding the right little green beams. A color image needs red, blue, and green light sources. Tiny red lasers are in every CD player; blue lasers are used in Blu-Ray and HD DVD players. But for years, no one made comparable green lasers.

Now, hoping to fill the void, companies such as Corning and Novalux are cranking out miniature greens-freeing Microvision and its competitors, Texas Instruments and Britain-based Light Blue Optics, to move ahead.

Microvision's technology is the furthest along and the most compact. Existing portable projectors weigh about a pound and work by bouncing light off of millions of mirrors on a fingernail-size chip. But Microvision uses one continuously swiveling mirror to transmit the entire image at 30 million pixels per second, an approach that requires less power and can be achieved with a projector small enough to fit into the back of an iPod.

In July, the company signed an agreement with Motorola to incorporate its projector into a working mobile device. By Christmas 2008, Microvision hopes to sell a stand-alone, iPod-size microprojector as an accessory that can be plugged into a video iPod or cell phone. And by Christmas 2009, microprojectors could be built into the devices themselves. The price? That's still in the research stage too.

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