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What's the next big application?

Posted: 04 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:technology application? smart grid? touchscreen? OLED? MEMS?

The obstacles to embedding picoprojectors are greater than the industry led us to believe.

Pocket picoprojector
Would you be tempted to buy a new mobile handset if it packed a picoprojector? Most consumers probably wouldn't bite, because they don't know what they don't know. But those who closely follow display technologies suspect 2010 will be the breakout year for picoprojectors, especially those embedded in phones.

The premise is simple. As the name suggests, the technology projects a small screen's display image onto a larger viewing area, such as a wall. That can turn a smart phone, with its tiny screen, into a platform for comfortably viewing a downloaded movie or an updated PowerPoint presentation. No more lugging your laptop and a full-size projector to business meetings. No more squinting at your hand to watch the latest viral video.

Companies vying for share in the nascent market include Texas Instruments, with its DLP; Microvision, with its Integrated Photonics Module, comprising lasers and MEMS on a tiny board with batteries; Micron Technology, offering ferroelectric liquid-crystal-on-silicon (FLCOS) microdisplay technology that it acquired when it purchased DisplayTech earlier this year; Syndiant, using its small pixel-filed sequential color LCOS; and 3M, with a second-generation projector using an LCOS imager and polarizing beam splitter.

Samsung cell phones with projectors based on TI's DLP shipped in South Korea earlier this year. LG Electronics' eXpo handset, introduced this month, became the first device in North America to offer an optional picoprojector, also based on TI's DLP. The projector snaps onto the device to support slideshows and video straight from the phone, according to service provider AT&T.

There are already 100 picoprojector products (mostly standalone projectors roughly the size of a garage-door opener) on the market.

Sounds good so far. The rub is that the picoprojector was also touted as one of the hot products of 2009. By now, according to analysts' earlier projections, some 2 million to 3 million picoprojectors in all, a fraction of them embedded, should have shipped. In reality, the 2009 total for picoprojectors of all kinds is around 300,000 units, according to Bruce Spenner, microdisplay senior director at Micron Technology Inc.

The obstacles to embedding picoprojectors are greater than the industry led us to believe. Spenner said the power consumption of many existing picoprojectors must be brought down significantly. "This is not just a battery/talk-time issue," he said. "Your handset could easily get too hot in your hand."

The display engine must also overcome production issues, and its cost remains prohibitive, he said.

Selling the concept might be the biggest battle. Consumers are not yet convinced they need a projector in their pocket.

Proponents foresee home sensor networks that automatically report on an individual's weight, vital signs and sleeping patterns to detect early signs of trouble.

Bringing hospital home
With as much as $2.5 trillion18 percent of the GDPspent on health care in the United States alone last year, everyone is looking for ways to lower costs. One promising avenue is to lessen the need for expensive doctor visits and hospital care by enabling home-based health monitoring, especially for chronic conditions and two of their underlying causes: stress and obesity.

Indeed, Jonathan Collins of ABI Research predicts today's market of some 11.65 million wearable devices (almost all of them for sports and fitness) will explode to a market of 420 million wearable health monitors59 million of them used at homein 2014. The rise of personal and home network standards such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will enable these home health monitors to connect to the Net with ease, Collins says.

Intel Corp. moved into the market this year with home-based monitoring devices and services built around its PC processors. The chip giant is following in the footsteps of such other titans as General Electric and Honeywell.

Proponents foresee home sensor networks that automatically report on an individual's weight, vital signs and sleeping patterns to detect early signs of trouble. They believe such monitors will help an aging population live longerand saferat home. The trick will be getting someone to pay for home care systems and services. Long-term studies on their effectiveness are still in the early stages.

Standards are also in a nascent phase. The Continua Health Alliance, an ad hoc industry group, has set some initial standards for home devices, but the medical community is still defining guidelines for digital health records. Making sure those recordswhich can include MRI scanscan be read by any system in a way that's secure and conserves bandwidth is "a monumental task involving many disciplines, and it's going to take 10 years to resolve," said one observer.

Wearable devices are likely to face some of the same business issues confronting today's implants. By the end of 2008, as many as 600,000 of the estimated 2.5 million implanted devices (such as pacemakers) in use were linked to home devices that transmitted data automatically to clinics for remote monitoring. But none of the companies providing those remote services are being adequately compensated for them, according to one pacemaker company executive.

To make wearable systems easy to use, engineers need to develop more refined sensors that pick up vital signs without the need for conductive gels. They also must negotiate the thicket of specialty networks now in development, including the IEEE 802.15.6 standard for body area nets and a proposal from GE Healthcare for a Wi-Fi variant for body area nets in the 2,360MHz to 2,400MHz band.

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