Microvision Laser Beam Scanning: Everything Old Is New Again

Reintroducing a 5 Year Old Design?

Microvision, the 23 year old “startup” in Laser Beam Scanning (LBS), has been a fun topic on this blog since 2011. They are a classic example of a company that tries to make big news out of what other companies would consider to not be news worthy.

Microvision has been through a lot of “business models” in their 23 years. They have been through selling “engines”, building whole products (the ShowWX), licensing model with Sony selling engines, and now with their latests announcement “MicroVision Begins Shipping Samples to Customers of Its Small Form Factor Display Engine they are back to selling “engines.”

The funny thing is this “new” engine doesn’t look very much different from it “old” engine it was peddling about 5 years ago. Below I have show 3 laser microvision engines from 2017, 2012, and 2013 to roughly to the same scale and they all look remarkably similar. The 2012 and 2017 engine are from Microvision and the 2013 engine was inside the 2013 Pioneer aftermarket HUD. The Pioneer HUD appears use a nearly identical engine and within 3mm of the length of the “new” engine. 


The “new” engine is smaller than the 2014 Sony engine that used 5 lasers (two red, two green, and one blue) to support higher brightness and higher power with lower laser speckle shown at left.  It appears that the “new” Microvision engine is really at best a slightly modified 2012 model, with maybe some minor modification and newer laser diodes.

What is missing from Microvision’s announcement is any measurable/quantifiable performance information, such as the brightness (lumens) and power consumption (Watts). In my past studies of Microvision engines, they have proven to have much worse lumens per Watt compared to other (DLP and LCOS) technologies. I have also found their measurable resolution to be considerably less (about half in horizontally and vertically) than they their claimed resolution.

While Microvision says, “The sleek form factor and thinness of the engine make it an ideal choice for products such as smartphones,” one needs to understand that the size of the optical engine with is drive electronics is about equal to the entire contents of a typical smartphone. And the projector generally consumes more power than the rest of the phone which makes it both a battery size and a heat issue.

10 comments

  1. Alfred E Neuman says:

    This company has a long history of hyping up what is really nothing more than some engineering sample sales.

    Shipping samples to customers doesn’t mean that a volume order will follow or that a partnership exists.

    In effect, they’re back to where they were in 2007.

  2. Andy says:

    Probably Microvision is lying when they speak about “customers”: A customer is for me someone that bought something. But Microvision has no customers other that Sony and Sharp. So, to whom they are shipping?

    • KarlG says:

      I can’t say how many “customers” Microvision has as it depends on what they “count” as a customer. They might have had a lot of companies buy development kits / SDKs to play around with Microvision’s technology. They could have a very low conversion rate (going from evaluation to real product).

      A more fundamental problem for Microvision is that they have a very expensive way to get a low lumen, low resolution, projector. You can buy a DLP projector with higher resolution and much brighter for about $120. There are only a few niche applications for which the laser scanning helps and these are usually negated by the fact that it is not very bright, it is expensive, and has poor lumens per Watt.

      • Thankful for these insights into this microvision product. Just wanted to share that I am an artist and a customer. I own 8 of these projectors. The laser pico has an “infinite focus” feature that no other pico projector or any other projector I have ever come across has. It allows for moving projection surfaces to stay in focus while changing physical distance from the projector and can be used in small form wearables. Here is what I made with these projectors. http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/the-wearable-projection-mapped-mask-is-a-cyberpunk-masterpiece

        • KarlG says:

          Actually the UO Smart Beam Laser (https://www.amazon.com/UO-Smart-Beam-Laser-resolution/dp/B014QZ4FLO) which uses Lasers to illuminate LCOS will also be focus free (have “infinite focus”). I can’t really recommend the UO product because they do a poor job of color balancing (generally red deficient), but their resolution is much higher and they are about 1.5X brighter. I have not measured the color on the Sony projectors, but the color was off (too red) on the Celluon Pico Pro which use a Sony optical engine. I saw UO at CES and they will be coming out with new products this year (hopefully they will fix the color).

          Note that most projectors that call themselves “laser,” particularly the ones with over 1000 lumens, use a blue laser to illuminate a phosphor wheel with green (and often red and blue phosphors) on it and are NOT focus free. For marketing reasons t they emphasize the word “laser” but are technically “hybrid laser/phosphor” projectors.

          For a few applications, like yours, focus free is necessary. Most of the time you set up a project and the screen and there is no need to change the focus. So in today’s market you can get an much brighter and higher resolution LED based projector with better color for less than half the cost of a laser projector; so unless being focus free is absolutely necessary, the vast majority of people will op for the LED projector.

      • Geoffrey Porter says:

        Your assessment of laser beam scanning versus other technologies seems to have been disproven by other experts in the field.

        “In the growing field of pico-projectors, laser-based scanning systems may be advantageous over DLP- or LCoS-based imagers due to their potential for miniaturization, enhanced optical efficiency and cost reduction. ”

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225302317_Eye_safety_for_scanning_laser_projection_systems

        • KarlG says:

          At best, you have shown a cherry picked tentative assertion that they “may be advantageous” someday by some researchers working in the ares. Back in the land of reality and facts and figures, laser scanning has a trivial market share. Microvision is a 24 year old “startup” that continues to loose over $1m/month rain or shine.

  3. Alfred E Tokman says:

    Probably best to stick to things you understand, Geoffrey.

    The article goes on to show, as others have previously, that Microvision’s approach has a fundamental eye safety problem – even if the current regulations could be rewritten.

  4. ET says:

    Hi, Karl.

    Forgive my limited knowledge. In your opinion, would most of the power consumption in Microvision’s design be used for the generation of light (i.e. by the lasers)? Or, is it used for moving the mirror? In the future, if instead of the standard laser diodes used for RGB today, VCSELs are used instead, would that significantly improve their lumens/Watt?

    Another question. I’ve obviously read some of your criticisms of Microvision and their projection technology. I don’t believe I’ve seen an opinion from you regarding their sensing technology (LiDAR, 3D Sensing). At least, I couldn’t find anything pertaining to those topics via a search of your blog. Any thoughts?

    Thanks.

    • KarlG says:

      I have not done a detailed breakdown of the power consumption. I know that there is a lot of power taken even to put up a totally black screen. Some of this is in the mirror control and some of this that the lasers are probably kept at a sub-threshold current so they switch on quickly; this in turn means that the drive circuitry is keeps in a linear state that is not fully off and thus consuming power.

      One thing to understand with LBS is that since the lasers have to be able to switch on and off (perhaps from black to full brightness) in just a pixel time (less than 10 nanoseconds in the center of the image). This means the power control to drive the lasers and the lasers themselves don’t so much switch on and off but rather just switch current between rails and the inductive and capacitive charge/current effects are significant.

      I’m not sure if VCSELs are a good choice for laser beam scanning. Generally VCSELs have VERY narrow line (spectral) width which means high amounts of speckle. Perhaps the biggest reason to use direct laser diodes is that they have much wider (10X or more) line widths than most frequency doubled lasers (of which VCSELs are one type). I know about 10 years ago VCSELs were being considered for LBS, but I think they had to have a special structure/design to switch fast enough. From what I can tell, any interest in VCSELs for LBS faded away as direct diode lasers became available.

      Microvision has a history to chasing after whatever the hot topic of the day may be. In the 1990’s it was about near eye displays, in the mid 2000’s it was pico-projectors. They are “good for this and good for that” and yet they continue to lose about $1M a month rain or shine. More recently they have been talking up sensing. There was LIDAR and many ways of doing sensing before Microvision started promoting that they MIGHT be useful.

      I don’t think laser scanning works well for things like gesture and hand movement recognition due to “temporal aliasing” (the scanning process is so slow that you might see hand/fingers say twice or not at all if they move in the “wrong” direction). Camera technology is much better and cheaper. Camera technology can take snapshots to avoid the temporal aliasing. In particular, I think the time-of-flight camera technologies beat LBS just about every which way as they can measure distance with fairly high angular resolution. In terms of LiDar, there were a lot of solution out there before Microvision was talking about it; its not at all clear what Microvision brings to the party over existing solutions and then you have to question whether Microvision could be cost competitive with cheap dual 1-D scanners.

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