Pico projectors have teased geeks like us for years with the potential of carrying a theater-size screen in our pocket. Tony Stark’s candy land o’ holograms may still be a pipe dream, but European research group Fraunhofer has given us a titillating preview of where display technology is headed with the release of their smartphone mini-projector.

To learn more about this cutting-edge display technology, keep reading after the jump.

Like any small LED projector, Fraunhofer’s device can create a larger viewing pane for your smartphone’s contents on any flat surface. What separates it from current devices, however, is the ability to produce a crisp, clear image on any surface shape, from almost any angle, thanks to so-called “array projection” — which is actually modeled after the compound eyes of insects.

Despite measuring only 2 x 2 cm, the projector houses over 300 chip wafers, which each in turn house 200 lenses. During the perfect case of vertically projecting a phone screen onto a level surface, the entire optics array overlays the same image onto the viewing surface, creating a sharp and bright picture. In less than ideal scenarios, each projector can shine slightly different versions of the image to maintain picture clarity and eliminate typical distortions created by projecting from odd perspectives. Best of all, user’s can interact with the projected image, just as they would on their smart phone screen, thanks to invisible infrared lines overlaid on the projection. Swipes, pinches, and other common touch interactions are all registered by the phone as fingers break these invisible lines.

While the technology has been designed for mass production in mind, Fraunhofer’s engineers say that it’s still three to four years away from hitting the market, largely because of the challenge of meeting high pixel density demands. A prototype will be revealed in Frankfurt at the Optatec trade fair starting tomorrow.

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