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Oscar goes to Texas Instrument engineer

Posted: 12 Feb 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Digital micromirror device  Emmy Award 

Hollywood awarded an Oscar to an engineer who made what may be the world's smallest and most accurate projector.

Several engineers crossed the Dolby Theatre stage in Hollywood Feb. 7, accepting awards for technology that has changed the look and feel of cinema. Among them was Texas Instruments engineer Larry Hornbeck, who received an Academy Award of Merit for his work in improving colour and projection in digital films through optical semiconductors.

Hornbeck invented the digital micromirror device (DMD) that serves as the basis of the digital light processing (DLP) cinema chip used in the majority of theatres across the United States. The DLP cinema chip is used for high speed, efficient and reliable spatial light modulation in projectors, resulting in richer colours that mimic actual sight.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed," Hornbeck said of his Oscar nomination. The Texas resident also won an Emmy for his micromirrors in 1998, and plans to put his right-pound statuette next to it—after he gets the statuette its own seat on the airplane home from California.


Larry Hornbeck during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards on Feb. 7, 2015, in Beverly Hills, California. (Source: Matt Petit / A.M.P.A.S.)

Hornbeck attended film school and has a fascination with film and electronic projection display history, even publishing a survey on 75 years of electronic projection display history. He began working on an analogue micromirror prototype in 1978 and finished a 16µ DMD with TI 10 years later. Now 5.4µ in diameter, the micromirrors tilt either towards the light source in a DLP projection system (on) or away from it (off). This creates a light or dark pixel on the projection surface.

"There are two parts to the problem of producing a beautiful image for cinema: how do you get eight million micromirrors to flip... and how do you get ones and zeros to get absolutely faithful reproduction," Larry told EE Times.


Each micromirror measures less than one-fifth the width of a human hair. (Source: Texas Instruments)

Hornbeck and his team eventually developed a series of algorithms to account for precise timing. Now, up to 8.8 million hinge-mounted microscopic mirrors make up a DLP chip, which coordinates with a digital video or graphic signal, a light source, and a projection lens to reflect a digital image onto any surface from 60in up to over 100ft wide. Texas Instruments first took its theatrical prototype to Paramount Studios in about 1997, and collaborated with industry experts to fine-tune the device.

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