One to Watch: Rick Oden's unbounded curiosity earns him a lifetime achievement award in physics

Rick Oden
In our ongoing series, ‘One to Watch,’ we profile TIers who are making a difference through innovation or citizenship.

Rick Oden, one of the brightest minds in contemporary physics, has a knack for explaining complex topics in ways that are easily understood.

"Some technologists get stuck in their own vernacular and use vague terms that they feel convey a lot of information," said Jim Hall, a senior technologist and one of Rick's long-time collaborators. "Rick will boil things down to simple terms and explain them at a level everyone can understand."

Rick is a TI Fellow in our company's DLP® Products business. His breakthrough innovations for the digital micromirror device (DMD) feature some of the tiniest mechanical components ever put into mass production.

In March, he will be given the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award in the field of physics from the American Physical Society (APS), when he will be named an APS Fellow. Only a tiny percentage of APS members are ever given such distinction. Rick will be just the third TIer to receive that honor in the last 50 years and only the eighth in our company’s history.

Tiny mirrors with big challenges

Rick earned a doctorate in physics at Arizona State University, where he studied surface science and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). He worked on MEMS projects for five years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before looking for something new.

Our company's DLP business, based around the DMD, was a perfect landing place. DMDs are microscopic mirrors that shift and direct light to project crisp, clear images onto a screen. When Rick joined the company in 1999, DLP Products was still in its commercial infancy and needed innovative and inquisitive minds to take it to the next level. At the time, DLP manufacturing was difficult and yields were low. The technology’s creators lacked a good set of tools for measuring, observing and understanding the inner workings of the tiny mirrors and the even tinier hinges and circuits that control them.

"Rick has unbounded curiosity about how things work," said Larry Hornbeck, the inventor of DLP technology and now a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas. "He has the ability to probe and understand the nature of things – and the networking skills to pull resources together within the company."

Rick created new tools and processes to study, measure and interpret the behavior of the DLP mirrors at the near-atomic level. With those insights, DLP researchers designed better hinges, increased the resolution of DLP images by shrinking the mirrors and significantly improved manufacturing processes. Today, DLP technology is found in the vast majority of cinemas and is making major inroads in automotive designs and smartphone-integrated pico-projectors. The Hidden Hinge 4 pixel node that Rick co-invented and helped design and validate is at the core of ongoing DLP innovation.

"Rick has been the driver of our fundamental understanding behind our DMD technology that has helped us scale, compete, deliver, reduce time to market and do some historically significant things like replace motion-picture film," Larry said.

Equal parts scientist and communicator

Rick earns and keeps the respect of his colleagues by being able to walk the walk and talk the talk with anyone, without being condescending or overly simplistic. His outreach and networking efforts help create more commercial interest in TI DLP solutions.

"It can be hard for people to understand how our MEMS work because we're the only group doing it, and it's totally different than what TI does in general," said Steve Gumm, retired vice president and manager of technology development, DLP Products. "Rick is persistent enough both to go after his ideas and to make sure people understand them."

Rick credits his family with the unique combination of hard science and interpersonal skills that have helped make him a success. "I got my tech smarts from my dad and from my mother, I got the gift of gab," he said. "They are complementary gifts that have assisted me in life."

He uses those skills as part of STEM outreach with students, particularly those in middle school and high school. He presents on technology topics, pushing students to ask active scientific questions about the world around them and the technology they might take for granted. He also often sweetens the pot with a demonstration of light-field projection, which can create the illusion of 3-D objects in mid-air – no special glasses or headgear necessary.

An ascent that isn't over yet

Rick is a strong believer in the power of sports. In addition to coaching his son and daughter, he plays competitive racquetball, basketball, and baseball and, until recently, was a traveling track-and-field athlete on our company's track team. With increasing pressure on his knees, he recently retired from the triple jump and long jump with a Masters All-American status at the Corporate Track and Field Championships.

But instead of putting his feet up and resting, Rick is still vigorously attacking life. "I like climbing mountains because you can strive for a goal and, once you get to the goal, you have perspective and a vantage you don't have down below in the trees," he said. "I love having a view in all directions."