Friday, July 30, 2010

Microvision: New Product Development Using IPM and PDE

On several occasions, Alex Tokman, CEO of Microvision, has stated that he doesn’t want the company to be just a commodity supplier of IPMs [Integrated Photonic Modules] and PDEs [PicoP Display Engines] to global consumer electronic firms. He wants to position the company as an applications and value –add powerhouse with a broad array of high margin products.

Here’s my take on the future at Microvision…

There are three areas that I would like to focus on…

1. SHOWwx is just the beginning of things to come

2. Laser PicoP Technology as “Core” vs. “Commodity” Technology

3. More Purchase Order to Confirm Rapid Ramp-up of Green Laser Production.

SHOWwx Just the Beginning of Things to Come:
On March 24th, Microvision started selling its laser PicoP projector SHOWwx to the US market… selling them directly; from its on-line web store for a handsome profit. When you sell directly; your margins are always better because of the savings in middleman’s commission. By the next earnings conference call; we should find out for sure what sales revenues and profit margins are from sale of SHOWwx.

At the 2010 Annual Shareholders Meeting, Microvision CEO confirmed the receipt of purchase orders worth $16.7 million dollars for SHOWwx and the ultra miniature PDE… and that is the part that confirms my view that SHOWwx and the $16.7 million in purchase orders is the just the beginning of things to come.
[Note: Please review slide 21]

Here’s why…

Potential markets for laser based PicoP Display Engine technology is not only huge… but it is also a high margin market opportunity.

If you were to consider the high-end Media Player market alone… the possibilities are enormous…

Low Power Front Projection Media Players for the Third World Countries:

Think about 2.5 billion people in India and China... as they represent the potential buyers of a low power front projection portable TV/Media Player that offers a large screen [60'' to 100''] high definition always in focus vivid and bright color viewing experience. Extremely low ENERGY consumption [like 10 watts or less] and portability is the key market demand factor here. Energy will become more and more scarce and expensive by leaps and bounds…whereas the portability allows for sharing of resources among friends and family.

Low Power Front Projection Media Player for the Master Bedroom:

Think about a billion bedrooms globally that could use a ceiling projector... for adding another dimension to the various ways of media consumption for information and entertainment. We have desired the bedroom viewing of television for ever, so it seems, and some of us may have installed televisions in the bedroom. However, now it is possible to add, by the millions, a low power media player with built-in PicoP projector in our bedrooms… that offers short throw ratio, wide screen, high definition, bright and vivid color, and always in focus viewing experience. Media player/projector runs on low power batteries... so no risk of electrocuting yourself. No significant heat... so you won't burn yourself. No heavy duty TV to install on the bedroom wall.

Low Power Portable Projection Media Player for Every Bedroom in the House:

All you need is one portable Media Player with built-in PicoP projector… that gets moved around from room to room when and where it’s needed. It certainly is a cheaper alternative than buying a TV for each room of the house. This portable Media Player can also be the one you pack with your bags… when you are on the go.

Market Size for Portable Media Players with built-in PicoP Projectors is huge… like in billions world-wide. The most recent orders for $16.7 million from the Consumer Electronic companies are just the beginning of what’s to come... and not the end.

Laser PicoP Technology as “Core” vs. “Commodity” Technology:
Some have questioned the laser PicoP as “core” [like CPUs from Intel] vs. “commodity” technology [like cell phone touch screen and cameras].

My take on the subject is as follows...

The IPMs and PDEs [the generic version] are an enabling technology and therefore a commodity... no question about that.

However, laser PicoP is a core technology and that's how it is being positioned by Microvision. Pico technology from TI or 3M will not create [or capture] as large a market as laser PicoP would... due to inherent image quality and differenciating functionality [like always-in-focus] that is only possible due to lasers being used as the light source.

Microvision laser PicoP technology will capture its fair share of the captive markets but it would go-on-further and create markets that are only possible because of laser PicoP. And that's not the commodity markets by any means. Microvision recognizes that right from the beginning; and therefore is positioning the PicoP Display Engines accordingly… by using the “Image by PicoP” insignia on every thing related to its technology.

There will be others with laser pico technology down the road... and that's why Microvision is churning out these patents by the hundreds… to protect its IP turf. Also, the "Image by PicoP" is part of this marketing strategy that positions Microvision PicoP technology as a "core" and not "commodity" right from day one. From what I have seen, and there is plenty of evidence for you to see as well, Microvision is charging a premium price for its PicoP technology. Just look at SHOWwx Commercial Edition currently for sale at $549.

I hope you can appreciate the difference... because it’s worth billions of dollars when it is executed with knowledge, passion, and gumption

Currently, there are several products in development at Microvision… and two of the most visible ones are…

Video and Console Gaming:

Microvision’s wireless 720p laser pico projector-based game controller prototype is being developed in collaboration with Intel. Over the last year, we have heard so much about the “PicoP First-Person Shooter Gaming Gun Prototype” that addresses the multi-billion dollar gaming market.

Laser Imaging and Laser Camera:

Microvision and Johnson & Johnson worked on this application for years… going back a few years ago.

Why has nothing ever come of this technology? J&J Ethicon has been working on an endoscope design for years with a number of patents that were awarded along the way. Nothing has ever come of this, I suppose, because they have been waiting on a RGB laser engine like the Microvision PDEs? And now that we have green lasers available, and the supply chain is ramping-up quickly, can we finally expect to see an endoscope or laser camera become reality?

Until recently, the Company was focused on bringing the SHOWwx to market and every thing else was on the back burner. Now that we have had a commercial launch of SHOWwx; and green laser technology and supply has improved, I see a renewed interest in the Laser Imaging and Laser Camera applications of Microvision IPM [photonic modules] and PDE [display engines]. Laser Imaging and Laser Camera is a multi-billion dollar market... and is a captive market for a cost effective innovative solution like what Microvision offers.

The following information is based on an article by a Microvision patent expert [Chris Wiklof, Director of patents from 2000-2006] that explains the Microvision’s Laser Camera concept. Richard Rutkowski, former CEO of Microvision, was a young hippie when this article was published, that's how old it is. There were two "camera" applications that he loved to talk about: confocal cameras and endoscopes, the latter got a lot of attention when Johnson & Johnson's Ethicon Endo division signed a contract with Microvision, back in 2005.

Here’s the edited version of information on Microvision Laser Camera from the "past era of days gone by"…

Microvision has developed an innovative imaging platform that uses scanned beams of light and is in effect a versatile “laser camera.” Leveraging technology originally developed for its scanned-beam displays, like the laser projector SHOWwx, Microvision has developed a scanned-beam imaging [such as in laser endoscopes] design that meets demanding size constraints (5-mm total diameter) while also delivering good resolution (currently 720p HD). While recent developments have centered on biological and medical applications, the technology represents a unique and extensible imaging architecture that has applicability across a broad range of medical and non-medical markets, including barcode scanning, machine vision, microscopy, and scientific imaging.

In a conventional digital camera, a field of view is flood illuminated. A small portion of the illumination power impinges upon any particular spot. The rays that impinge upon the spot can be absorbed, transmitted, reflected, or scattered. A very small portion of the light scattered from the spot is imaged through a lens and aperture to a conjugate light-sensor element, where the photons are converted to electrons. To form an image, the process is repeated in parallel, with a small portion of light from each spot simultaneously imaged onto each of a typically large array of corresponding light sensors.

Compared to a conventional digital camera; a laser camera works in reverse. A laser beam illuminates a single spot while a large-numerical-aperture non-imaging detector receives the scattered light energy and converts it to an electrical signal. Because all the illumination energy falls on the particular spot of interest, there is no need to form a conjugate image plane and no need to exclude light from elsewhere in the field of view with a lens and aperture. To form an image, the process is repeated sequentially, moving the beam to illuminate the next spot and the scattered energy is again measured.

Comparing the two technologies, one can see that the direction of light propagation is reversed. Whereas the resolution-determining step in a conventional digital camera involves selectively receiving light energy from a spot, the resolution-determining step in a laser camera involves selectively illuminating a spot. The reversal of the rays does not affect the final image; for example, a spot that looks semitransparent and pinkish to a conventional digital camera looks semitransparent and pinkish to a laser camera.

Whereas conventional digital photography places a technology burden on the CCD or CMOS sensor array, laser photography requires a high-performance beam scanner. The beam scanner must be able to scan at high frequency to provide a high frame rate. Microvision currently uses proprietary single-crystal bulk-micro-machined silicon Micro Electro Mechanical System (MEMS) scanner technology developed for its scanned-beam pico projector.

Here’s the link to information on CCD and CMOS senor array used in digital cameras:

Unique Attributes of Laser Camera:

A laser camera is intrinsically self-illuminating, which means that a laser camera cannot capture daylight images taken at long distances. Instead, a laser camera is a strong candidate to capture images at moderate to short distances, and especially high-magnification images. While daylight does not interfere with a laser camera’s operation─ the beam scan rate is so high that the processor simply ignores DC light levels and rejects noise from artificial illumination─ it also does not help it. The image captured by the laser camera is one produced by the laser camera’s scanned beam. Thus, a laser camera will not capture the appearance of speckled sunlight transmitted through leaves. Instead, the laser camera will capture the appearance of a leaf as viewed from the perspective of the light source.

Though not suitable for general-purpose, like ambient-light photography, a laser camera has many attributes that are valuable to a range of medical, commercial and scientific applications.

• No motion blur: Because the dwell time that the beam remains on any given spot is very short (about 20 ns); there is virtually no motion blur evident in any one pixel for most types of images. Thus, it is possible to capture fast moving objects without requiring complex and bulky strobe illumination. Movement in the image that occurs during the frame time will be expressed as a skewing of the image, an artifact that can be removed during image processing.

• Controlled specular reflection: Because the illumination source is a point, the amount of specular reflection [cause of glare] in the image can be reduced significantly. For example, with a ring illuminator typically used for close-up conventional photography; many subjects exhibit a white halo that washes out important details. With a laser camera, even though the detector occupies a relatively large area, glare is virtually nonexistent.

• Small and self-contained laser camera with illumination: Whereas a conventional sensor array must occupy an area large enough to fit its pixels, a laser camera only requires a small sensor area and a scanning mirror. A scanning laser endoscope [for example] capable of 720p resolution is only 5 mm in diameter. Furthermore, because a laser camera is self-illuminating, all the necessary components can be placed in a single package, thus requiring no field engineering to select, install, and adjust a light source. Such a small and self-contained package is useful for many medical, scientific, and industrial applications.

• Long range/large depth of field: Because there is virtually no light lost from the illumination beam, a laser camera has greater range than the illumination range of a conventional digital camera. Similarly, conventional systems using artificial illumination at long range are typically operated with a relatively large aperture to maximize light collection, resulting in reduced depth of field. Conversely, a laser camera detector does not image the returned light and there is no need for an aperture. The laser illumination beam of a laser camera can be substantially collimated across a wide range of applications such that focus stays constant with distance, resulting in significantly improved depth of field.

• Wavelength agility: If the passband of a conventional digital camera filter is narrowed, the amount of light reaching a detector is severely reduced, resulting in a low signal-to-noise ratio. Conversely, the laser illuminators typically used with a laser camera have a very narrow spectral width. This allows the system designer to select particular wavelengths with which to probe and image the field of view. Depending upon individual system architecture, it is possible to allow for a large number of imaging wavelengths, a property that lends the laser camera high specificity with respect to dye or pigment measurements. This may be especially useful in advanced medical and scientific techniques such as photodynamic therapy.

• Large color gamut: Because of the narrow spectral width of the illumination sources, a laser camera’s color sensitivity is placed closer to the perimeter of a C.I.E. chromaticity diagram than the wider band filters used by a conventional digital camera to separate colors. This results in a larger triangle (for an RGB, three-color system) within the color space, which results in the ability to capture greener greens, redder reds, and bluer blues… giving higher 200% NTSC rating to Microvision laser PDEs.

• Variable field of view: The laser camera’s field of view consists of the range of spots to which the scanner directs the illumination beam and is thus determined by the drive waveform delivered to the scanner. Thus, lossless electronic zoom and variable aspect ratio may be achieved by dynamic modification of the scanner drive.

• High magnification: A laser camera’s magnification can be quite high, depending upon beam shape. For example, the laser-beam waist can be made quite small and the scan angle reduced to produce a high-magnification image of a small field of view. By placing a beam splitter between the light-beam source and the scan mirror, and picking off a return image, the laser camera can be easily configured as a tiny confocal microscope and deliver magnification sufficient to resolve embedded objects a few hundred nanometers in diameter or map the surface profile of an integrated circuit.

Laser Camera ─ the New Frontier

The laser-camera technology offers many new performance capabilities and benefits by exploiting a fundamentally new architecture for capturing images. These capabilities, taken individually or in combination, are expected to open a new design frontier for imaging systems with requirements that cannot be cost-effectively met by conventional integrated matrix imagers… in this multi-billion dollar market.

Anant Goel