Researchers at the German research institution Fraunhofer IOF have developed an array of hundreds of microprojectors that can be used to project images from smartphones and similar small devices. The array enables the design of slim LED projection systems which nevertheless offer bright images even on curved screens.
With smartphones increasingly displacing desktop and laptop computers, they also increasingly are used for presentations. However, image details are often hard to make out – the display is simply too small. A new LED-based projector could help: You position the smartphone in a small cradle on a coffee table, for instance, and it projects the image onto the table top: crisp, bright and A4-sized. If a user wants to zoom in on a portion of the picture, they can swipe the projection with their finger the same way they would swipe a display screen – the projected image can be controlled using the same principle as the display itself.
The special thing about the LED projector: the entire image displayed is crisp and clear – even if projected at a very fl at angle with the beams striking the table surface at a diagonal. Usually, this would distort the picture and make it blurry in places. The researchers who developed the projector at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena were able to solve this problem, though: "Our projector consists of hundreds of tiny microprojectors in an array, each of which generates a complete image," explained Marcel Sieler, a scientist at IOF. "This technology, known as array projection, is modeled on nature – on the compound eye found in some insects – and with it for the first time we can create very thin and bright LED projection systems with tremendous imaging properties."
In the most simple case of vertical projection onto a level surface, each of these tiny projectors casts the same image onto the viewing surface. Hundreds of individual images overlap to create a sharp and bright overall picture. But if the device is positioned at an angle to the screen, each little projector shines a slightly different image. Just how these individual images will have to look in order to create a sharp overall picture is a function of the angle at which the image is projected, and of the geometry of the screen itself. This is because each projector in the array has a slightly different perspective of the overall scene. The large depth of focus of the micro lenses enables these key features: even free-form screen geometries such as curved surfaces can be used. The experts refer to this as the projector's tailored focus capability. Each of the individual images is computed using software the researchers have developed: the position sensor and the smartphone's camera could deliver the geometric information, which the software uses to perform its calculations and compute the individual images along with their focus setting.
The optics were manufactured on wafers containing around 300 chips, each in turn housing 200 lenses for the microprojectors. "The manufacturing process is suitable for mass production, and that makes the devices economical to make," Sieler pointed out. The sensors that tell the smartphone whether and how the user has used the projection as a control field are already state-of-the-art technology: "The image is overlaid with infrared lines invisible to the user. If the user‘s finger breaks one of these lines with a swipe motion, for instance, the sensor registers this and advances to the next image," Sieler explained. It will still be another three or four years before the projectors appear on the market: the new projection technology requires a high pixel density on the part of the digital imaging system. The researchers will premiere their prototype of the new LED projector at the Optatec trade fair being held May 22 to 25 in Frankfurt; the prototype is suitable for initial use on static images. The device itself measures just 2-cm by 2-cm.
So it sounds like the first application of these projectors could be to replace computer screens with small projectors that can create a large display anywhere. A small camera (already incorporated in the smartphone) could be used to monitor the position of a pointing finger and create a full size "touchscreen".
There is a smartphone picoprojector on the market already, at least for the iPhone. Check out Pop Video, here's a review of it. This thing looks great.