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New projector to fit on a chip

Microvision shows off a tiny viewer, suitable for handheld computers or mobile phones, which it promises will project a screen with the resolution of a laptop.

Handheld devices with notebook-quality graphics and video are on their way, according to Microvision.

The Bothell, Wash.-based company has demonstrated an 800-by-600-pixel full-color display that has just four active components and can be integrated into a PDA (personal digital assistant) or a cell phone.

The device works by having three LEDs (light-emitting diodes) shining red, green and blue onto a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) chip with a vibrating mirror. As the mirror vibrates, it scans out a full picture, which is projected through a lens to the viewer. The display is designed to be held up to the eye, either as a screen in a handheld device or as part of a wearable headset. Potentially, it can be made not much larger than existing silicon chips.

The image quality of the Microvision prototype is exceptional, said Russell Hannigan, Microvision's director of business development for advanced products. He said the product achieves Super VGA (SVGA, or 800-by-600 lines) resolution.

"Color gamut and saturation are already comparable with a very high-quality CRT (cathode-ray tube), and we expect to see further improvements in performance over the weeks ahead," Hannigan said in a statement.

The company said it will spend the next 18 to 24 months improving the display by reducing size, weight, power consumption and cost. The MEMS chip is being developed in conjunction with Taipei company Walsin Lihwa, and the LEDs with U.S. opto-electronics specialist Cree.

Although the concept of scanning LEDs through a moving mirror isn't new--the first commercial device was the Private Eye head-mounted display, launched in 1990--the development of MEMS and full-spectrum LEDs makes very high-quality, mass-produced and affordable devices much more plausible.

Microdisplays--which display less than 1.5 inches diagonally and require projecting--are being actively developed around the world with many different approaches. Other technologies close to commercialization include liquid-crystal on silicon (LCOS), organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), field-emissive displays (FEDs), vacuum-fluorescent-on-silicon (VFOS) and variations on the cathode-ray tube.

All these technologies have different trade-offs between power, size, resolution and refresh rate, and can manage color fairly well. Although it is commonly held that microdisplays will be a huge market, especially when 3G (third-generation) mobile communications becomes good enough to carry live video, it is not yet clear which of the many options will prove themselves in the market.

Rupert Goodwins reported from London.