Triple alum Larry J. Hornbeck presented 2014 Academy Award of Merit

Larry Hornbeck accepting his Oscar
Larry Hornbeck during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Achievement Awards on Feb. 7. Photo credit: Matt Petit / (c)A.M.P.A.S. (PRNewsFoto/Texas Instruments)

You won’t see Larry J. Hornbeck walking the red carpet with the likes of Bradley Cooper and Meryl Streep before the Academy Awards on Sunday. You won’t hear his name called to accept the familiar gold statuette—at least not live, anyway.

Because the Case Western Reserve University triple alum, whose work has revolutionized how movies are created, distributed and viewed, has already picked up his Oscar.

That was on Feb. 7, during the Academy’s Scientific & Technical Awards at the swanky Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Academy presented Hornbeck, a Texas Instruments (TI) Fellow, an Academy Award of Merit (the Academy’s top Sci-Tech award) for inventing the digital micromirror device (DMD)—or DLP chip used in DLP Cinema projection. The technology has led the film industry to convert to digital releases, distribution and projection.

“Every day, there are almost 10 million moviegoers watching DLP Cinema screens, and that’s basically what this Academy Award is all about,” he said. “There are now more than 118,000 DLP Cinema screens in the world.”

DLP Cinema technology produces consistent brightness and color-accurate images, compared to old-school 35-millimeter film. The technology also makes it easier for studios to package and distribute their movies. DLP Cinema technology has also created a renaissance in 3-D movies because it can project both left- and right-eye images from a single projector.

Award-winning director and screenwriter James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) sent Hornbeck and his TI colleagues a congratulatory message, which was read aloud recently at a company meeting. He praised the technology, saying that Avatar would not have had the global impact it did without DLP Cinema 3-D projection.

Unlike film, the digital image, composed of light reflected by up to 8.8 million microscopic mirrors, doesn’t become scratched or faded and doesn’t jump or flutter on the projector.

Receiving the Oscar is rare in the Sci-Tech area—usually no more than one a year and sometimes none. Past winners in the category include Dolby Labs and Eastman Kodak for its motion picture film division.

Viewers may yet get a glimpse of Hornbeck at the Academy Awards podium. Taped highlights of the Sci-Tech presentations will be broadcast during the Oscar night ceremony on Sunday.

“I’m really hoping a portion of that is going to be televised,” he said. “We’re going to have a virtual watch (party) for the employees to recognize this achievement.”

Hornbeck, who holds 34 United States patents for his groundbreaking work in DMD technology, earned a physics degree from Case Institute of Technology in 1965. The Parma High School graduate added a master’s degree three years later and a PhD in 1974, both in solid-state physics from Case Western Reserve.

Hornbeck began working for TI in 1973, and by 1987, he and his team had invented the digital micromirror technology, which has since been used in applications ranging from medical to laptop computers to cell phones.

DLP Cinema projection technology debuted publicly in 1999 with showings of Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace.

Oscar viewers may not hear his acceptance speech, but he used the moment to acknowledge “the DLP Cinema team” and his company’s support.

“When I got done with the speech, I accepted on behalf of every engineer with a dream and all 30,000 at TI,” he said. “The company is built on a foundation of innovation. We were given the opportunity to push the boundaries of the impossible.”

Hornbeck, who was inducted into the prestigious National Academy of Engineering in 2007, also won a 1998 Emmy Award in engineering, recognizing his work for excellence in the television industry. In 2009, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the DMD.

So which gold statuette gets top billing: the knight clutching the sword or the winged woman holding an atom?

“I couldn’t put it next to the Emmy because the Emmy is on a glass shelf that isn’t all that stable and the Oscar weighs about nine pounds,” he said. “I introduced Oscar to Emmy and I put Oscar over on a table. And my wife moved it into my office.”

Hornbeck said both awards may join his other honors in a special display case—a collection reflecting one man’s creative mind, a team of engineers and a company that encouraged them to transform an industry.