Last December, a team of managers, scientists, and technicians from Texas Instruments (TI) trekked from their corporate research labs in Dallas to a meeting at George Lucas’ sprawling ranch in the hills west of San Rafael, Calif. Lucas was present. So was Rick McCallum, producer of “Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace,” then still half a year from opening day. The movie moguls had summoned the TI staffers to audition a digital projector, built by the company, that could change how movies are shown, replacing Hollywood’s beloved canisters of film with semiconductor chips.
Lucas was impressed. He called back the TI scientists. “He asked if we were interested in unveiling the digital cinema projection system at a second opening of ‘Phantom Menace,’” recalls Larry Hornbeck, a soft-spoken TI physicist who has been working for the past 20 years on the digital micromirror device (DMD) that is at the heart of the new projector.
The rest is cinematic history. In mid-June, a month after the opening of “Phantom Menace” drew millions of fans, the much-anticipated movie debuted a second time at a theater outside Los Angeles and one just across the Hudson from Manhattan. Unlike the initial opening in May, however, not a frame of film snaked through the projectors. Instead, a 360-gigabyte digital file stored on 20 hard disks fed the special TI projectors lighting up the big screen.
Making it all possible was a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) featuring millions of mirrors-each roughly the size of one cell in the human body. Transistors adjust each mirror individually to one of two possible angles. Set one way, light from a projection bulb reflects from the micromirror through a set of focusing lenses and onward to the screen; tilted the other way, the light dumps into an absorber inside the projector. It’s akin to a sports arena filled with millions of fans holding cards they can flip in perfect unison to construct an enormous image. Only with the TI projector, the high-resolution pictures can change every 5 microseconds (far faster than the eye can discern). By using sophisticated software and alternating beams of red, green and blue light, the system can produce more than 1 billion colors-plenty even for Lucas’ cinematic fantasies.