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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pocket projector shows the magic of miniaturization

Optoma's Pico Projector, with a video iPod: a quality picture, but weak sound.

Come on, admit it. Is there anything more awesome than miniaturization? The Walkman put a stereo system in your pocket and changed the game forever. A modern digital watch has the computing power of a whole roomful of 1950s computer gear. And people are watching TV shows these days on iPods about the size of a business card.

Enormous feats of shrinkage like that don't come along very often, though. So when they do, you sit up and take notice - as you will the first time you see the Optoma Pico Projector. It's a long-awaited, much-rumored projector about the size of a cellphone: 2 by 4.1 by 0.7 inches (5 by 10 by 2 centimeters), weighing 4.2 ounces, or 119 grams. Its list price is $430. It premiered at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin in late August and it will be available in electronics stores worldwide later this month.

A pocket projector? Are you kidding? This isn't just a new product - it's a whole new product category.

Regular projectors, of course, are big, heavy, expensive, sometimes noisy machines. They are standard equipment in corporate boardrooms where PowerPoint jockeys hold sway, in classrooms or auditoriums, or mounted to the ceiling in home theaters, where they provide extra-large movie-watching goodness.

But there are lots of times when a 100-inch screen is overkill - and yet a 2-inch iPod screen doesn't quite cut it. Those are the times when you need something in between. In those situations, a completely silent, ridiculously simple microprojector like the Pico really shines.

You would have to be a jaded gizmophile not to be impressed the first time you turn on this tiny, shiny black box. In the center of one end, there is a very bright LED lamp. Inside, there is a miniaturized Texas Instruments digital light-processing, or DLP, chip, similar in principle to the ones that drive some full-size high definition television sets. Together, they produce an astonishingly bright, clear, vivid video or still image. That's right - from a projector that fits in your jeans pocket.

There are no footnotes for that jeans-pocket statement, either (like "not including enormous power brick"), because the Pico can run on battery power. Each charge lasts for about 90 minutes - longer if you use the lower brightness setting or when you are playing video without sound. You can recharge the projector either from its power cord or from a computer USB jack. And the projector comes with a spare battery and a drawstring carrying bag.

A pocket-size, self-contained projector changes all the rules. An iPod and a Pico - that's the entire setup. Now, for the first time, a tent wall can become a movie screen when you are out camping. (So much for "roughing it.")

Now, let's be clear. No pocket projector is going to produce as much brightness as tabletop projectors ten times its size. The Pico manages 9 lumens, compared with, for example, 2,000 lumens for a $900 tabletop projector. The minimum distance for this projector is 8 inches from your "screen"; the maximum is 8.5 feet away, at which point you get a 65-inch image. And it really, really helps if you dim the lights or use a proper, reflective movie screen.

Even so, for its size, you will be amazed at what this little guy can do.

You can place it on your airplane tray table and project onto the seat back in front of you. (Yes, I tried it.) You get a dazzlingly bright, sharp, vivid video image about a foot across, so that you and your immediate seatmates can all watch.

Or shine the projector onto the ceiling of the plane. The three-foot movie image on the roof completely baffles everyone within several rows; nobody can figure out where it is coming from. I tried that, too. It was fun.

Or you can park the projector on a little tripod - it comes with a tiny, screw-in tripod adapter - and project tonight's dorm-room Wii marathon onto a bed sheet or someone's T-shirt.

Or you can lie in bed and point the thing straight up. In a dark room, you'll have yourself a huge, bright movie playing on the ceiling.

There is no keystone adjustment to compensate for when the projector is facing the screen at an angle. The 20,000-hour bulb is not replaceable. And the picture resolution is only 480 pixels by 320 pixels - on paper, much coarser than the 1024-pixel by 768-pixel (or higher) resolution of a tabletop projector.

But you know what? Pixels are overrated. Nobody will complain about the sharpness of the Pico's image, especially after you find just the right spot on its little Focus dial. Overall, the Pico does surprisingly well.

So what can you watch on this thing?

It comes with a special composite cable. On one end, there is a tiny audio-video pin that goes into the projector. On the other end, you will find the familiar three-headed, red-white-yellow RCA cables. These are female jacks, designed to mate with the male composite cables that come with just about every DVD player, VCR, game console, digital camera and camcorder ever sold.

So in a pinch, the Pico projector could replace a TV set when you are using full-size gear like DVD players or game consoles.

But the true mission of the Pico's miraculous miniaturization is connecting to fellow microgadgets: digital cameras, cellphones, iPods or iPhones, for example.

The necessary adapter for the iPod/iPhone comes with the projector. It's a white plastic nub that snaps onto the bottom of the iPod or iPhone, plus a short black cable that connects the nub to the projector. (The projector produces an image only when videos are playing. It doesn't show, for example, the iPhone's Web browser, e-mail program or other applications - a shame for instructors or anyone else who might like a way to demonstrate the iPhone's workings to more than one audience member at a time.)

To connect a digital camera so you can show off your stills or your videos, or to connect your camcorder, you use the composite TV cable that came with it. Optoma plans to make adapter cables available for other smartphones in the coming months, starting with a Nokia cable for around $10.

The Pico projector does so much so well with so little, it might sound ungrateful to bring up its one really embarrassing shortfall. But somebody has to say it: What about the sound?

The Pico has a built-in speaker, yes, but it's about the size of a hydrogen atom. With the iPod volume cranked to full, the Pico puts out about as much volume as you ordinarily hear leaking from earbuds on somebody sitting next to you.

In other words, the projector is as bad with audio as it is good with video.

If you are using an iPod, iPhone or cellphone, your last, best hope is the headphone jack. You can listen through earbuds, of course, although that's not much of a communal experience. (A headphone splitter would at least let you invite a friend.) Or you can connect that headphone jack to a portable speaker - but then, of course, you have a much more complex rack of gear, and you are way beyond the realm of jeans pockets.

Even so, the Pico projector is the first of its kind - other microprojectors are on the way - and overall, it's awesome. It will give parents a completely portable backseat-of-the-minivan movie theater for the kids. It will let photographers display their portfolios with much greater size and effect than they would get with a scrapbook - right from the digital camera, if need be. It will permit spur-of-the-moment demos or pitches for corporate presenters or independent filmmakers, wherever they happen to be, without having to set anything up or reserve a room.

Miniaturization - it's a blast, man. Gotta love those engineers. Just wait till they get their hands on air-conditioners, TiVos and jet engines.


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