We recently spoke with Marco Boella, CEO and Dr. Nicolas Abelé, CTO of Lemoptix, based near Lausanne, Switzerland, about their work to integrate high-resolution MEMS-based micro projection technology into information display systems, mobile phones and other applications. According to Lemoptix, the largest market will be in embedded applications in mobile devices, such as mobile phones, laptops, digital still cameras and gaming. The micro projection market is estimated to be worth $2 billion by 2012.
MEMS Investor Journal: Please provide a short history of Lemoptix to introduce the company to our readers.
Marco Boella: Lemoptix, previously known as Scanlight Imaging, was founded in November 2008 as a spin-off from the EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Lausanne. The company has seven employees and the team has been financed by industrial mandates and approximately $800,000 received from various awards and grants. We are currently in discussions for raising seed capital.
Our core technology asset is the MEMS scanning micro-mirror platform, which stems from 10 years of R&D work carried out at the Microsystems Laboratory of the EPFL where world-leading work has been carried out in this field. One of the world’s first proofs of concept of MEMS-based micro-projection systems was developed there in 2000 and disclosed in a book by G. Lammel et al. “Optical Microscanners and Microspectrometers Using Thermal Bimorph Actuators” in 2002. Since then, Lemoptix has taken this technology from university level toward industrialization and commercialization. We are shipping scanning micro-mirrors now for potential customers to evaluate.
The company’s target markets for the scanning micro-mirrors in the immediate term are various manufacturers of optical instruments. As of 2010 we will be targeting OEMs that are looking to integrate MEMS-based micro-projection technology into their information display systems. As of 2011, Lemoptix micro-projection modules will be targeted at integrators that sell components to mobile phone manufacturers.
MEMS Investor Journal: Describe micro-mirror technology and what led your company to focus on its development and commercialization for micro-video projectors.
Marco Boella: Classical technologies for optical scanning mirrors stem from the mechanical industry and are used in many applications such as in laser marking and laser barcode readers. Responding to industry requests to significantly reduce the size, power consumption and price of such devices Lemoptix has developed a bottom-up approach by using semi-conductor-like equipment to build micro-mirrors with actuation based on magnetic and heat-dissipating principles instead of gearings. Lemoptix has achieved the development phase of the MEMS scanning micro-mirrors and the components are now being commercialized by Lemoptix for various industrial applications.
This technology, being much smaller, cheaper and featuring low power consumption, is now mature for further implementations in more complex systems such as miniature video projection systems. The technology will enable the replacement of the one million matrix used in most of the current video projection systems thereby permitting extreme miniaturization by using a single MEMS micro-mirror.
We are convinced of the fact that this fundamental technology platform is the one that will enable the development of miniaturized micro-projectors, meeting the most stringent requirements of true embedded applications, meaning full integration of the projection technology into mobile handheld devices. As noted, such requirements include size, brightness, power consumption and heat dissipation. The Lemoptix device is very well placed in all these aspects.
MEMS Investor Journal: Your website mentions your unique technology for the development of high performance miniaturized projectors and that your micro-mirrors are shock resistant. What are your manufacturing process for the mirrors and how they achieve the shock-resistant feature?
Nicolas Abelé: MEMS micro-mirrors date from the late 90’s. They were designed for fast switching in telecom applications. The electrostatic actuation that is suited for these “on-off” switches is not the best solution for single mirror micro-projection applications where a completely different mechanical design and actuation type is needed.
As an example of a design difference, optical switching requires a very rigid structure while not being concerned by dynamic mechanical distortion effects of the mirror during actuation. The Lemoptix micro-mirrors are magnetically actuated giving a completely linear movement. This allows superior projection resolution. The actuation mechanism affects resolution in the sense that each projected pixel is driven by a laser pulse at a certain tilt of the mirror. If the mirror actuation is not linear, the space between each pixel will be different and some pixels will be stretched and others squeezed.
A key criterion for micro-projection systems is shock resistance. The device has to sustain around 2000g in normal conditions of use, which corresponds to a severe shock in an industrial environment. An example is the device being dropped. We achieve this through a specific proprietary design. Other criteria include power consumption lower than 1.5W for 45 lumens of light to provide around 2 hours of use with a standard mobile phone battery, a scanning angle greater than 45 optical degrees, and a scanning frequency of 20 kHz. For the user, a larger scanning angle will induce a larger projected image and higher scanning frequency a higher image resolution. The Lemoptix micro-mirror technology and design enables optimum performances in all these fields.
MEMS Investor Journal: What were some of the challenges Lemoptix overcame in developing the product?
Nicolas Abelé: The main challenge for micro-mirror development, as it is for all MEMS devices, is the packaging where the objective is to avoid any humidity and dust absorption inducing early degradation or failure of the device. Optical MEMS devices need a much more complicated packaging system as compared to MEMS accelerometers.
For example, optical MEMS need glass windows with anti-reflective coating as well as enough space between the MEMS and the window to allow tilting (or scanning angle) of the mirror (around 200μm). Lemoptix has developed wafer-level hermetic glass packaging – all micro-mirrors are packaged at once – enabling close to 100% fabrication and dicing yield. On the other hand, the dicing yield for unpackaged MEMS micro-mirrors typically decreases to less than 50% due to the use of high pressure water to eliminate silicon parts during sawing in standard semiconductor equipment.
MEMS Investor Journal: What is the market potential for micro-mirrors in the projection market, either in terms of forecast dollar sales or in numbers of units?
Marco Boella: Lemoptix is focusing on the micro-projection market for embedded applications. The largest opportunities in terms of market size are expected to be in the consumer space and, more specifically, in mobile devices such as phones, laptops, digital still cameras and gaming devices.
Some estimates anticipate this total market to be worth $2 billion by 2012. Looking specifically at the mobile phone segment, with more than 1.2 billion new mobile phones (in 2007) sold per year with a CAGR of 9%, it is estimated that the integration of micro-projectors will eventually follow that of the camera, present in 60% of today’s new phones. By 2012, we assume that some 50 million (3% of the market) new phones will be equipped with projectors, representing a potential market value of $750 million. It is expected that the integrated micro-projection market could reach a 15% adoption rate by 2014, representing $4 billion a year and a volume of 270 million pieces a year.
MEMS Investor Journal: Describe typical end uses for the projectors and the prices end users will pay for the products.
Marco Boella: Within the mobile device segment, embedded micro-projection systems will enable mobile users to take full advantage of the rich multimedia content and information to which they have access. The embedded micro-projection system will enable the projection of always in-focus content images or video on virtually any flat or curved surface. The resulting image is always in focus and bright even under broad daylight, due to the use of laser light sources.
In terms of pricing, the OEM or integrator would pay a price ranging from $15 to $50 per micro-projector module depending on the volume. The end-user price will depend on the exact application.
MEMS Investor Journal: Are other firms engaged in similar developments and targeting similar markets? How does their approach differ from yours?
Marco Boella: There is certainly a large ongoing effort among manufacturers of projection systems to shrink their products to meet the stringent requirements related to mobility. First and foremost, however, it is essential to distinguish between the different types of mobile projection products that we see and hear about in the market. Companion projectors, also called pico-projectors by certain manufacturers, are simply beamers that have been reduced in size to fit in a pocket. There have been various recent market announcements of these types of products.
The ultimate goal will be the integration of the micro-projector into the mobile device as an embedded device without major compromises in terms of image quality, device size, cost or power consumption. It is therefore important to consider the basic differences between these different technologies, since these will have a critical impact on the potential for further progress towards ultra miniaturization and true embeddability into mobile devices.
Overall, there are two different technology platform groups on the market or under development. They are described as matrix array technology and analog MEMS micro-mirror technology. The first is based on chips with digital arrays composed of millions of individual pixels. Technologies in this group are LCD, LCOS and DLP from TI. Miradia also uses similar technology to DLP. These matrix array-based technologies are limited in the potential for ultra-miniaturization. This is because the chip simply cannot physically be miniaturized without strongly reducing the number of cells and consequently pixels, which would naturally lower the resolution.
Lemoptix micro-projectors, on the other hand, are based on analog MEMS micro-mirror technology, where the matrix is replaced by a single scanning mirror.
The Lemoptix single mirror projection technology is radically different from the digital matrix technologies. Instead of one cell of a digital array corresponding to one pixel on the image, the Lemoptix projector will draw the image on the screen, pixel by pixel, line by line somewhat similar to the CRT (cathode ray tube) concept.
Pulsating red, green and blue laser light beams are combined into a single modulated light beam. This beam is then directed at the MEMS micro-mirror oscillating at high frequency and deflected to reproduce the image, pixel by pixel. This technology enables high-resolution projection since the resolution will ultimately depend on the spot size of the laser and the scanning angle of the mirror.
The development of a technology foundation such as this one requires naturally considerable investments in time and money. Manufacturers on a different technology base such as TI that has invested massively in DLP, will focus on different markets or have to make a significant shift to move to a different technology platform if they wish to do so.
A few other companies, such as Microvision, are developing single analog mirror-based technologies but all of these are still in the prototyping phase so it is difficult to draw any significant conclusions on their performances at this stage. While we are also in the prototyping phase, unlike Microvision we are not planning to commercialize companion projectors as an intermediate step towards embedded micro-projection systems.
In conclusion, there is a big market building for companion projectors based on existing matrix- technologies and various products are already out. The true embeddable projector market that Lemoptix is targeting is still a few years away but is estimated to be worth at least $2 billion. The key to success in this marketplace is the right technology foundation as of day one. We believe that we are on the right track in this regard.
MEMS Investor Journal: How do you measure yourself against these other producers in terms of technology, product variety, features, durability and pricing?
Marco Boella: Lemoptix micro-projection systems are destined for demanding display applications where image quality, focus-free operation and embeddability into mobile devices are a must. We therefore measure ourselves against other players on these fronts. The embeddable micro-projector module must be ultra small, no more than a few millimeters in thickness. It should be low power consumption and should cost less than $20 when produced in high-volume. It should also enable projection in broad daylight i.e. provide a bright image and not necessitate any focusing.
Lemoptix laser micro-projectors will fulfill all of these criteria. Display technologies using matrix-based mirror arrays will be limited in miniaturization potential and will measure in centimeters instead of millimeters. The matrix chips alone, such as DLP, are also expensive to produce and it will be difficult or impossible to bring the cost down to under $100.
LCD- and LCOS-based technologies provide lower image brightness when measured in lumen per watt consumption. As an example, a recently introduced micro-projector using LCOS technology from 3M provides less than 10 lumens per watt whereas the Lemoptix micro-projector will project at 45 lumens per watt. This improvement is mostly made possible through the use of laser light sources. Obviously the brightness characteristic will determine the real-life usability of these devices in brightly lit environments.
MEMS Investor Journal: Although this is a new product, as you look ahead what are the challenges you face in terms of product improvements, manufacturing, pricing?
Nicolas Abelé: Lemoptix is currently working on the various building blocks of its micro-projector. There is no major challenge to overcome but rather successive iterations to be made in order to improve product performances by looking at second, third and fourth order effects of our micro-projection technology.
For the color laser micro-projector, Red-Green-Blue (RGB) laser sourcing has for a long time been one of the blocking factors for MEMS-based micro-projector development. Technical challenges have been overcome by some laser manufacturers that are now providing the three basic colors. It is expected that these lasers will be mass-produced in single bar, that is a platform integrating the three laser sources, instead of three individual lasers, by 2010-2011, which fits perfectly well with our current product roadmap. Micro-projector pricing is then strongly related to volume but also to initial technology choices, the business model and product strategy, where Lemoptix is very well engaged.
MEMS Investor Journal: What do you see as the next major development in your markets? Where is this technology headed?
Marco Boella: As I mentioned earlier, Lemoptix will address first the various industrial display system markets, where OEMs are looking to integrate micro-projection technology into their products. The ultimate goal is the development of ultra-miniaturized color micro-projection modules that can be embedded in the smallest mobile products and that provide HD quality images with high brightness. Major technology breakthroughs are still to be expected in the battery technology, so that sufficient power is available for longer (i.e. more than two hours) usage of the mobile devices. Once providing plug-and-play micro-projectors for mobile phones, Lemoptix expects to see such technology in other mobile devices such as in digital cameras and laptops.
MEMS Investor Journal: Where do you do your manufacturing?
Nicolas Abelé: Lemoptix manufactures its products in Switzerland and has access to the clean-room facilities of the EPFL for smaller production volumes. For larger volumes, the production will be externalized to a dedicated MEMS foundry. We have already validated the technology transfer feasibility to the STMicroelectronics foundry, one of the global leaders in MEMS.
Marco Boella has more than 20 years of international business development: sales, marketing and general management experience within the ICT industry. He has worked for large multinationals such as HP and Nokia as well as smaller technology startups. He has a proven track record in developing new successful businesses from zero, leading geographically dispersed teams and driving profitable business growth across multi-country regions. Marco has a M.Sc. degree in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Technology, Helsinki, Finland.
Nicolas Abelé has extensive experience in MEMS product development through his past activity at STMicroelectronics in France. He was the laureate of the 2005 European Award for Innovation and has been involved in different European projects aimed at MEMS innovation where he served as a work-package leader. Nicolas has obtained his PhD degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and holds 11 patents in the field of MEMS components.
Copyright 2008 MEMS Investor Journal