At some point during Sunday’s Oscars telecast, in between actresses in stunning ball gowns, actors trying to redefine the tux, movie clips, dance routines, and acceptance speeches cut off when they go on too long, there will be a nod to the technology that makes it all possible. An announcer will talk about the Academy’s Science and Technical Awards, presented earlier this month, then an Oscar-winning engineer will wave from the audience. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.
This year, that engineer will be Larry Hornbeck, who developed the digital micromirror device (DMD) used in Texas Instruments’ digital light processing (DLP) projectors. He gets the Academy of Motion Pictures Award of Merit (that’s the official name for what most of us call the Oscar) for the invention.
Micromirrors—some 8 million on the 4K resolution version—tilt to turn pixels on and off by steering light. Hornbeck began working on an analog version of the technology in 1978; he developed the digital device in 1987; TI sold the first chipset in 1996; and Hornbeck saw the first major motion picture screened using the technology in 1999. Today the vast majority of theaters that project movies digitally use DLP.
Hornbeck received his Oscar—and made his acceptance speech—earlier this month, at the Academy’s Science and Technical Awards, where hosts Margot Robbie and Miles Teller struggled to get straight-faced through the explanations of the technologies being honored (who knew technology was so sexy?) and set up a drinking game around mentions of the word “voxels.” (See video, below.)
Another Oscar, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, (essentially a lifetime achievement award), went to Dolby’s David W. Gray. Gray started his career as a sound engineer traveling with 70s pop stars like Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, and the Kinks, joining Dolby as a field applications engineer in 1980 (he’s now a VP). At Dolby, he focused on fixing sound reproduction problems big and small, working on encoders, decoders, and filters, and helping to develop industry standards for sound encoding.
The Academy also gave 2015 awards in the form of certificates or plaques to a number of other engineers and scientists, including:
• The team at Texas Instruments who turned Hornbeck’s invention into a product and another TI team who refined the technology.
• Engineers who developed tools for digital animation, including ILM’s Shape Sculpting System, used in the Hulk and in Pirates of the Caribbean; Weta Digital’s Barbershop hair grooming system, used in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; foliage creation technologies from SpeedTree Cinema and DreamWorks; algorithms to make it easier for animators to blow up virtual objects, including the Bullet physics library, ILMs PhysBAM Destruction System, the Kali Destruction System, and Digital Molecular Matter.
“It’s the coming of age for how we can destroy things, ILMs Brice Criswell told the Stanford News Service. “Before, effects artists would build miniature models and blow them up on camera.” A note here about ILM’s Shape Sculpting Awards—Colette Mullenhoff, one of the named developers, was the only woman to receive an award all night—and got a standing ovation, led by the women in the audience.
• The developers of facial motion capture systems, including the engineers who built MOVA’s motion capture system, used in the making of the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
This award generated a bit of controversy over whom exactly should be credited with coming up with the technology. Left out was Mova founder Steve Perlman, whose past tech credits include Quicktime and WebTV. Perlman wrote in a letter to the Hollywood Reporter: "I invented and/or co-invented all of the core technologies, and I integrated together the inventions into a practical and high-quality service offering. I also personally wrote every single Mova patent.” (I confess, I was thrilled to see Mova honored, because I was “captured” by the Mova folks early on in their efforts, and donated my pixels to their research. And, for what it’s worth, Perlman was there every minute of my Mova moment.) The developers of Universal Capture were also honored for their motion capture technology.
• Developers of innovative camera controls, lenses, and lens filters.
• Engineers who made advances in data storage, in particular, a variety of data structures optimized for storing and manipulating voxels (this section of the awards presentation involved much glass-lifting, according to the rules of the drinking game previously noted.)
• Engineers who developed high-quality displays used in movie production, including Sony’s professional OLED monitor and HP’s Dreamcolor display.
Here’s a complete list of the technologies and their developers honored by the Academy this year.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.