Quality projectors have been reducing in size steadily for the last decade. Once monsters at any resolution we have fully entered an age where it is common to see salesmen carry attaché-case-sized road warrior units on planes and even live events routinely using compact units. A recent Corporate TechDecisions article on short throw projection demonstrated the ability to get significant resolutions and brightness with a very limited distance to screen from a small footprint. We now anticipate the consumer electronics world to make demonstrable reductions in size and thickness of products with improvements in screen resolution or added features. Would you be nearly as excited about a tablet upgrade that remains the same size and thickness? Most reviewers bemoan when this happens.
Pico Projectors 101
If you have any doubts that these miniscule light boxes are garnering interest of at least the industry one only has to take a look at the wide variety of units both tiny and not so small being described as “Pico.” Just as with a multitude of product manufactures who have and are ascribing the term HD or High Definition to products that have little relation to the term, so it appears the term Pico has begun to suffer the same fate.
So what actually defines a Pico projector?
“I have a big beef with the terminology of the term pico projector, people really misuse the terminology. I have seen units as large as 12 x12 inches and you’re talking a few pounds being called a pico. If I had to define it, it is a battery-powered unit that fits in the palm of your hand, like a cell phone,” says Paul Marganski of the website PicoPros.com in a recent podcast.
In summation, size matters. As Marganski states, these projectors are quite remarkable devices. But, how do they compare with even the small short throw projectors? What can they do? Can I go out and replace the current two to five pounders with these lightweight units?
Pico projectors are being used for placing “surprise” marketing by being small and reliable enough to be placed in tight quarters or in odd spaces, for intimate digital signage in schools, venues and as a component of interactive displays, such as the through window touch response systems.
Currently, much of the growth in interest is as a replacement for second screen viewing to accommodate viewing by select groupings such as in an office meeting or impromptu viewing on a train or in a cafe. With the ability to be powered by an AC Adapter or, in some cases, battery power, Pico projectors have the potential to not just become a sector unto themselves, but with the push to integrate into mobile smart devices may just pose a threat to displacing others.
“We’ve used these before for some matrixed video across walls in small spaces. Clients loved it, but what a chore planning with them and keeping them all working… Still, it looked good and created a great effect,”says Steven Halling, president and CMO at AVFX.
Size May Matter But It’s All About the Lumen
Lightweight and portable are fine, but what kind of punch can these units pack? The simple answer is fair to middling. A middle of the road standalone unit is capable of outputting 85-150 lumens. This is not a stunning number when compared to some of the larger short-throw units or the high-end systems, which typically can push out triple or even quadruple these numbers. If you are willing to lay down just a little bit more cash, say about $300 US, a few units can reach 300-350 lumens; at just about $1 per lumen, this is not a bad return on investment.
Brightness is key but it must be combined with a quality resolution and image size if these units are to be used as anything more than second screen — that is tablet, phablet, smartphone — accessories allowing more than a whopping four people to share in a presentation.Typical native resolutions for these projectors max out at 720p and many of the existing units unfortunately do not support 16×9. But, many manufacturers are making noise about 1080p units with 16×9 within in sight of next year. Even at a full HD, if the image size can only generate a screen size equal to an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper, many of us will be left wanting.
Of course this does have a caveat, and a serious one at that.The larger the image one attempts to produce, the light engine of the projector has more area to cover with a set brightness level, as well as fighting with ambient light and surface reaction. This means that as the image size gets larger, the fixed lumen level has to cover more area and results in a darker image and an apparent drop in resolution. For example, what is the takeaway on brightness and resolution? These units may not be quite ready to be announced as same image from 1/4 the footprint, but can be used in many applications given some accommodations to the product limitations. For those folks whose interest is piqued but are not quite sure if the time to strike is at hand, look for the release of laser and LCOS-based units later this year and early next year, LCOS, or liquid crystal on silicon. It is a transmissive projection technology that uses liquid crystals to modulate the signals.
Not Quite Under My Thumb
One of the most underrated and under hyped features on many projectors is the ability to control the units remotely. More often than not, control comes in the form of IR or Serial communications, and a small but growing demand for TCP/IP and by extension Wi-Fi. The main reason we need control is because the existing models are often mounted from the ceiling to get them out of the way and reduce fan noise interfering with the meeting discussion.
Pico projectors are by their very nature small and innocuous and more often than not part of another electronics package, (such as a mobile device). Many units do not come with a control connection as a direct result of limited available space on the unit for the connections and boards. There is hope with a few manufactures adding at least IR control, which can be easily added to nearly all quality control systems, and the very nature of smart mobile devices having built in IP/Wi-Fi connectivity and the simple process of creating an app to connect.
Another consequence of the limited chassis space on such small units is that nearly all units in production do not provide a source video connection on the projector itself. Excluding the one Dell unit, inputs are accommodated via a dongle connection with the physical connection being a micro something on the unit. This solution is fine for the average consumer, but for A/V pros, the threat of a dongle getting misplaced or the ease with which such cables can worry and break is a source of consternation. Fortunately there are a number of companies, like ConnectTRX, who are providing wireless connection for both control and video streaming from source to projector.
Where Are You?
Pico Projectors are an emerging market niche and finding information on these can be a bit challenging. Questions such as who reports on these and who manufactures Pico units? A good starting place is to look at sites such as PicoPros, a site run by two pico fanatics and is chock full of great news, information and reviews. Projector Central has been steadily adding reviews and comparison reports to its well-resourced site.
Gotta Wear Shades
The future of Pico Projectors looks bright. They are poised to make terrific inroads to the consumer and Pro A/V markets. Proof of dramatic growth is provided by Linda Norton of PMA Research, who based their projections on their January 2013 report:
“We are very optimistic. In looking at standalone Pico and Personal projectors the market has grown exponentially. In 2008, less than 100,000 units sold. In 2012 it reached 850,000 and we are forecasting more than a million for 2013. That’s not including units embedded in phones and cameras,” Northon says.