They are in nearly every classroom on campus and students spend a lot of time looking at what they do. No, it is not the professors, it is the projectors.
“Most people, when they look at a projection display, they don’t understand exactly what they are seeing,” said Richard Gale, professor and associate chair of graduate studies in electrical and computer engineering.
Gale, on the other hand, knows exactly what is going on. While working at Texas Instruments, he was part of the team that developed Digital Light Processing — the technology that makes many projectors work.
TI began work on the technology in 1979 and Gale joined the team in 1985. The project was funded by various grants and was helped by the defense administration, which was interested in the applications in data manipulation and management. Eventually, TI cut ties with the government and reallocated money into consumer technologies.
“They funded three or four of those kinds of technologies and DLP is the one that made it,” Gale said.
The end goal was to create a high definition display chip, he said, and the first prototypes came out in the early 90s.
When the first projector using DLP was released, it weighed about 30 pounds, Gale said. Now, the technology can fit in a pico projector the size of a deck of cards.
The applications for Gale’s work are widespread. DLP is used for everything from medical imaging, to TVs, to his classroom — where he not only uses DLP for PowerPoints, but also to demonstrate to his students how far they can go with electrical engineering.
“It’s very handy to have this example,” he said.
In the ‘80s, Gale said, the team had no idea what they were working on would make it as far as it did.
Tim Dallas, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering, said their micro mirror device is now in the top three commercial applications of Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems.
DLP works as a system of tiny mirrors and, Gale said, it is a perfect example of nanotechnology used in everyday life. The hinges that move the mirrors are made of aluminum, but are so small that about 10,000 of them can fit on one of the digital mirror devices used to power DLP.
“It was an amazing sort of experience,” Gale said about working at TI. “There was a lot of really high quality talent.”
Toward the end of the project, TI realized how big DLP was becoming and began pushing the team to create faster. At one point the company hired 100 more employees to add to the team of what used to be about 12. The team also got its own fabrication plant — to create the physical chips — which cost about $40 million a year to run.
Gale continued with TI until he was 50, when they offered him early retirement. He had been receiving many job offers and decided to pursue them. He became a consultant for a few years and then came to Tech, where he has been teaching for the past 10 years.
“It’s been good having someone who is recognized nationally and internationally for their work with MEMS,” Dallas said.
Now, Gale continues to teach and he helps with a co-op with TI which has placed more than 200 Tech graduates into positions at the technology company. He also works with the RoboRaiders and GEAR robotics, a program using Lego robots, as well as FIRST Robotics, and is the regional director for Best Robotics.
Gale will present some elements of robotics at the upcoming Lubbock Mini Maker Faire.
“His level of expertise has benefitted both projects we’ve done together,” Dallas said, “and some of my independent projects.”
That level of expertise is somewhat well known, but often goes unrecognized. When Gale tells students he helped to create the technology behind the most used teaching tool in most classrooms, he said, he almost always gets the same response.
“Oh,” Gale said, laughing. “They don’t believe it.”