DLP Cinema’s Journey to Oscar: How a tiny chip revolutionized Hollywood

Features
Technology

The Oscars® is the biggest night in Hollywood. It’s when stars, producers, directors, cinematographers, screenwriters and more anxiously walk the red carpet, wondering if they will be one of the lucky few to win the most prized award in the world of entertainment─an 8½-pound, 13½-inch-tall statuette.

On Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, as we anxiously waited for the presenters to open the envelopes at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, there was a bit less tension more than 1,400 miles away in Van Alstyne, Texas, where TI Fellow Emeritus Dr. Larry Hornbeck watched the awards ceremony from the comfort of his home. He already knows that motion pictures are now viewed worldwide on over 119,000 Scientific and Technical Award-winning TI DLP Cinema® projectors. 

What does this fact have to do with the Oscars? Well, thanks to millions of digital micromirrors invented by Larry and the dedicated work of many other engineers, he received his Academy Award of Merit (Oscar Statuette) on Feb. 7 at the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Presentation for inventing the digital micromirror device (DMD), or DLP chip. Several past and present TI employees also received a Scientific and Engineering Award (Academy Plaque) or Technical Achievement Award (Academy Certificate) for their contributions to DLP Cinema technology.

What does DMD technology have to do with the cinema industry? Quite a bit. It’s the basis of the DLP Cinema chip used in more than eight out of ten digital movie theatre screens worldwide, including IMAX®.

“The digital micromirror device (DMD) is the core technology that has enabled Texas Instruments DLP Cinema projection to become the standard of the motion picture industry,” the Academy said in announcing the award.

Larry invented the DMD chip in TI’s Central Research Laboratories in 1987. Twelve years later, the first digital premiere of a major motion picture happened at two theatres–one in Burbank, Calif., and the other in New Jersey, where Larry and the DLP Cinema team spent two weeks showcasing the technology.

It seems all too perfect that Larry’s invention ended up redefining the movie industry. He says moviemaking is more than just a hobby–he has been a student of film and electronic projection display history ever since his older son took an interest in cinematography and attended film school. In 1998, Larry published a survey spanning 75 years of electronic projection display history. And that’s when he made the prophetic conclusion that DLP technology could be the ultimate projection display technology for the emerging digital age of the 21st century.

“I’m not an engineer who just happened to get the Oscar. The movie industry is where my spirit has been all along,” Larry said. “DLP Cinema technology will hopefully have as long of a run as film. It’s a robust, reliable and precise technology that could transcend the next 100 years.”

Larry will be the first to say that we have watched movies the same way for 115 years–on film. Thanks to his invention and the passion of a small team of engineers, theatres today project the best Hollywood has to offer with vibrant, bright and vivid digital imagery using DLP Cinema technology. Because of DLP Cinema technology, 35mm motion picture film, with its scratches and faded colors, is nearly extinct. 

When the digital premiere of a major motion picture happened at that Burbank movie theatre in 1999, few could see just how transcendent the technology would be. Every movie theatre in the world used film at the time, but the digital premiere started to get some buzz. The most innovative Hollywood minds saw the potential of the technology.

I was in the projection booth in Burbank as Larry and the DLP Cinema team showcased the power and potential of the technology to studio executives, cinematographers, actors, producers and directors. One night after the last showing, the security guard told me that James Cameron was there to see the DLP Cinema projector up close and personal.

We could see the gears cranking in James’ head. Fast-forward a decade later: The DLP Cinema team went his office to discuss the movie Avatar and he asked if we could help him with 3D projection. TI technology has literally changed the production, post-production and exhibition of motion pictures and I am so proud to be part of this history-making team. Changing the minds of theatre owners and studio executives was not an easy task, but thanks to the resources provided by Texas Instruments, we did it.

The imagery we see on the big screens of movie theatres has never been so crisp, so vibrant and so real. Larry’s invention has brought the movies to life in a way film never could. It’s a Hollywood ending to an Oscar-worthy story about a man who married his love of technology, his thirst for innovation and his passion for the silver screen, starring a cast of TI DLP Cinema engineers who changed the way we all see movies.

 

DLP Testimonials

“The DLP chip has literally transformed our industry and how our audience experiences the great storytelling of our creative community. DLP Cinema technology allows us to present our 3D films in the best and brightest formats and has enabled Cinemark to create the number-one private-label Premium Large Format in the world, XD Extreme Digital."

—Tim Warner, CEO, Cinemark Theatres

“We constantly focus on improving the moviegoing experience, especially the quality of our presentations. We are proud to be the first large circuit to convert to DLP Cinema projection technology, which vividly improved our presentation with its brilliant images.”

—David Passman, President and CEO, Carmike Cinemas

“The movies have never been so exciting, thrilling, vivid and lively, and much of the credit goes to DLP Cinema technology. NATO has worked with the DLP Cinema team to continuously improve the moviegoing experience since the early stages of their digital-cinema development and continues today.”

—John Fithian, President & CEO, National Association of Theatre Owners