If you don’t try to go too far, you never know how far you can go.
September 18, 2015
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, while working for a Dallas publishing company, I wrote a book for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Texas Instruments.
The company was built on the far edge of innovation.
And that’s where it remains.
Nobody outside of TI really knows what goes on within those walls.
For years, it had a group of engineers and inventors and idea men locked away in Houston.
No one knew who they were.
They worked in secret.
They worked in a building that did not exist.
They worked on projects that did not exist.
They reached for ideas that should not exist.
The hierarchy at Texas Instruments denied there was even a TI facility in Houston.
Don’t rummage around down there, they said.
You won’t find anything, they said.
In Houston, those who did not exist called their operation skunk works.
Got an idea?
Think it can’t be done?
Think it stretches too far beyond the realm of possibility?
Send it to skunk works.
Somebody would figure out a way to do it.
Of those I met while researching the book, I was fascinated most by Dr. Larry Hornbeck.
He was a quiet man.
He was soft spoken.
He joined Texas Instruments in 1973 and began work on an optical microelectromechanical system.
I had no idea what it was.
But I do know why he awoke one morning and decided to develop a digital micromirror device.
The answer is simple.
There wasn’t one.
Dr. Hornbeck thought the world needed one.
It might even be profitable.
His journey was littered with mistakes, failures and shattered concepts.
He could have quit.
Maybe he should have quit.
The thought never entered Dr. Hornbeck’s mind.
He worked on the device more than fifteen years.
He tried this.
He tried that.
When nothing worked, he rolled up his sleeves and tried again.
It took perseverance.
It took determination.
But in the end, he was able to place as many as two million moveable and controllable mirrors on the face of a silicon chip not much larger than a postage stamp.
Dr. Hornbeck ushered in the age of Digital Light Processing, and it was destined to revolutionize the digital and film industry.
We would never watch television or the movies the same way again.
In 1997, TI’s Digital Cinema team began meeting with the Hollywood creative community – producers, directors, and cinematographers. They took notes from distributors, movie theater owners, agents, actors, audiences, and even ushers.
The team asked two questions: What makes a great picture? And what can be done to make the picture better?
TI incorporated the ideas it heard into a new prototype for a projector that would use DLP to create large screen images.
Did Hollywood care?
George Lucas did.
In 1998, he announced he would shoot his new movie in a digital format and exhibit it with digital projection.
It was a little picture he called Star Wars.
The results were spectacular.
DLP was as far out and as innovative as the film itself.
Producer Rick McCallum pointed out, “For filmmakers, this brings the in-theater experience a lot closer to what can be seen on the set during shooting. This is the turning point in film exhibition.”
He was right.
The digital concept won for Dr. Hornbeck an Emmy Award for “outstanding achievement in engineering development.”
In writing about Texas Instruments and Dr. Hornbeck, I was struck by the words of poet, essayist, and playwright T. S. Elliott.
He said: Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.
Among others, he was talking straight to us.
When we conceive our novels and when we write our stories, we should not be confined or condemned by the same old genres, the same old predictable plots, the same old tired, worn-out, stereotypical bunch of characters that emerge with the depth of caricatures.
We owe readers something far better.
So don’t be afraid to take a chance.
Try something new.
See how far you can go.
Take a journey you’ve never traveled before.
You have no idea what you may discover.