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Chip Hall of Fame: Texas Instruments Digital Micromirror Device

An Oscar-winning invention brought digital video to movie theaters

1 min read
Digital Micromirror Device chip
Image: Larry Hornbeck

Digital Micromirror Device chipImage: Larry Hornbeck

Digital Micromirror Device

Manufacturer: Texas Instruments

Category: MEMS and Sensors

Year: 1987

On 18 June 1999, Larry Hornbeck took his wife, Laura, on a date. They went to watch Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace at a theater in Burbank, Calif. Not that the graying engineer was an avid Jedi fan. The reason they were there was actually the projector. At the heart of the projector was a chip—the digital micromirror device—that Hornbeck had invented at Texas Instruments. A DMD uses millions of hinged microscopic mirrors to direct light through a projection lens. The Phantom Menace screening was “the first digital exhibition of a major motion picture,” says Hornbeck, a TI Fellow. Today movie projectors based on this digital light-processing technology—or DLP, as TI branded it—are used in thousands of theaters. It’s also integral to rear-projection TVs, office projectors, and tiny projectors for cellphones. “To paraphrase Houdini,” Hornbeck says, “micromirrors, gentlemen. The effect is created with micromirrors.” For his efforts, Hornbeck was ultimately awarded an Oscar—unlike The Phantom Menace.

Photo: Larry Hornbeck

An early prototype digital mirror device. Descendants of this chip can be found in projectors worldwide.

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A sign outside of a building says Palo Alto Research Center Xerox

An undated exterior view of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is shown in Palo Alto, California.

Xerox/Getty Images

In late 1969, C. Peter McColough, chairman of Xerox Corp., told the New York Society of Security Analysts that Xerox was determined to develop “the architecture of information” to solve the problems that had been created by the “knowledge explosion.” Legend has it that McColough then turned to Jack E. Goldman, senior vice president of research and development, and said, “All right, go start a lab that will find out what I just meant.”

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