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Digital Micromirror Device (DMD)
Larry Hornbeck spent nearly two decades developing a revolutionary technology
that has in recent years begun to offer consumers the chance to enjoy some of
the most sophisticated digital imagery ever available. The invention, known as
DMD, or the digital micromirror device, is at the core of a system called DLP(r),
or Digital Light Processing, from Texas Instruments. DLP has brought crystal
clear digital images to hundreds of local movie theaters via digital projection
systems; and to thousands of homes via high-definition television sets. The
technology has in many ways reset the bar for the visual quality of motion
pictures and television programming.
Hornbeck attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, earning
a B.S. degree in 1965, an M.S. in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1974, all in physics.
He joined Texas Instruments in 1973 as a member of the firm's Central Research
Laboratories staff. In 1977, he began work on optical microelectromechanical
systems (MEMs) modulators.
Ten years later at TI, Hornbeck began focusing on ways to use MEMs micromirrors,
which are tiny mirrors narrower than a single human hair, as part of an all-new
digital light modulator. He began looking for a way to use the micromirrors to
process incoming light efficiently and convert that light into digital signals.
He found that by placing hundreds of thousands of micromirrors in sequence and
actuating them to tilt up and down rapidly—thousands of times per second&mdashlight
could be redirected and processed to project very high resolution images onto a screen,
working within a small amount of space.
Hornbeck's concept evolved into the DMD, a silicon chip containing up to two
million micromirror switches. Each of the mirrors on a DMD is movable and
individually addressable. At first, TI used DMD to build an airline ticket
printing machine. The first of these machines, the DMD2000, went to market
in 1990. Concurrently, TI began working on an initiative that would drive DMD
technology toward the high-definition television arena after the U.S. Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded the firm a multimillion-dollar
contract for high-definition DMD chip development in 1989. In addition, a
private firm seeking ways to project high-definition television in large
formats invested money to help develop DMD projector prototypes. TI developed
its own internal initiative in 1991, dubbing it the Digital Imaging Venture Project.
Hornbeck was tapped to head up this endeavor; he was named a TI Fellow in
1993 in the company's newly formed Digital Light Projection Products unit.
He received a patent for DMD technology; he also developed and patented
numerous other products, some of which were instrumental in making low-cost
DMD manufacturing feasible.
By 1996, TI had completed development on its first DLP products; these
products incorporated DMD chips into complex systems that used sophisticated
electronics to reflect vibrant, all-digital images onto screens or other flat
surfaces. DLP projection systems may use a single-chip format, capable of
creating nearly 17 million colors, or a triple-chip format, which can produce
some 35 trillion hues. DLP technology is currently used by dozens of
electronics manufacturers around the world; it accounts for approximately
50 percent of the worldwide front projection market.
Hornbeck, meanwhile, has continued to hold the title of Fellow, Technology
Development, DLP Products, TI, as of this 2007 writing. He holds 33 U.S.
patents, has authored more than 30 papers, and has been honored with numerous
awards including the 2004 Daniel Noble Award from the Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers, the 2005 Photographic Society of America Progress
Medal, and the David Sarnoff Medal Award from the Society of Motion Picture
and Television Engineers. In 1998, he was presented with an Emmy Award for
DMD from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. According to TI, DLP
chipsets have generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue since 1996.