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Electronic Design

Following Engineering Passions Earns Admission To The Lunatic Fringe

At a Texas Instruments media and analyst event last month, I found myself sitting in a suburban Dallas movie theater wearing 3D glasses and eating tortillas with TI's Principal Fellow Gene Frantz, the "father of the DSP." As you may recall, the first DSP was inside TI's 1970s educational toy, the Speak & Spell.

Frantz says that the Speak & Spell originated as an "under the table" project, getting the official go-ahead at TI only after Frantz and his peers had worked some eight months on it on their own initiative. That initiative, says Frantz, was a passionate pursuit of the underlying engineering challenges in making speech synthesis a reality.

Given DSP's remarkable legacy, it's not surprising TI encouraged Frantz to continue to follow his passions and to seek out others doing the same. As Principal Fellow, he tracks down engineers both inside and outside TI who are inspired by "what if" thinking and tackling the tough terrain.

His mission is finding these "free thinkers," whether they're potential TI customers starting up in a garage or engineers within TI inspired to take up the next "skunkworks" projects. Frantz calls these engineers "the Lunatic Fringe" and is proud to be a leader in what he calls the "chaos of innovation."

Given the impact of Frantz's past successes, it was fascinating to chat with him about what he sees as some of the future applications for DSP and other up-and-coming technologies.

Frantz believes we are in a breakthrough phase in the development of electronic prostheses, a.k.a. bionic body parts. Processing electrical signals from the body's nervous system, DSPs can help disabled patients miraculously regain functions through bionic legs and arms, electronic retinas for restoring vision, synthetic voice boxes for speech, and other technologies (see "Engineers Work Medical Miracles Every Day" ).

Another revolution, says Frantz, is taking place in automotive safety systems, where he foresees automated driving in our near-term future. Active safety systems, he says, "are now focusing on the one weak link—the driver. By 2020, the car will be able to see and sense all hazards perfectly" (see "Thanks To Active Safety Systems, You Won't Buy It If You Don't Brake,").

A third area Frantz thinks is ready to break open is "energy scavenging," the harnessing of energy via MEMS technology from motor vibrations or other ambient sources. "Stick-on" wireless sensors that combine ZigBee-like mesh networking with self-generating power could allow "perpetual devices" powering the quick setup of security and communications systems. Such sensing technology, combined with analytics powered by DSPs, could revolutionize security and health monitoring systems (see "The Promise Of Harvested Energy,").

Frantz was also part of a panel discussion on "Innovation at TI—The Lunatic Fringe" which explored how "skunkworks" programs have become integral in TI's culture. Such an approach fosters creativity and engineering passion, albeit via a less formal R&D structure than in previous eras. Like other leaders in our market, TI is smart to create a fellows program that offers an "alternative" career path for its best and brightest engineers.

You may be wondering why I was in a movie theater eating Mexican with Frantz. Well, TI's opening night reception was held at an AMC multiplex to offer a demonstration of DLP projection and "add on" 3D technology from Real D. I got to tour the theater, see DLP digital projectors in action, and meet Michael Lewis, chairman/CEO and cofounder of Real D.

Real D offers pretty amazing 3D movies via a polarizing filter and glasses—not the old red and green glasses, but the latest polarized specs. The company's first projects have been big commercial successes, working with Disney/Pixar on Chicken Little, the Nightmare Before Christmas 3D edition, and The Incredibles. We got to preview an awesome excerpt from U2 3D, a forthcoming U2 concert documentary and the first non-animated movie I'd seen in the Real D format. Lewis says Real D is also working to bring 3D to television for home viewing.

Speaking of the best and brightest, I want to welcome Kristina Fiore and John Arkontaky, new assistant editors on the Electronic Design staff. We are excited to have their fresh perspective on ways to bring you the best possible presentation of information vital to design innovation.

I also want to congratulate our Communications/Test Editor Lou Frenzel on the publication of the revised edition of his textbook, Principles of Electronic Communication Systems. Check out ED Online 15659 to purchase a copy.

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