In the mid-1970s few believed it was possible to implement real-time digital processing technology in an integrated circuit. Now the technology is found in every device that accesses the Internet and plays media—not to mention many others.
A group of engineers at Texas Instruments Inc. set out to design and build a chip featuring digital signal processing (DSP) technology — at the time a new and relatively expensive technology found mostly in academia and military applications. The result was the TMS5100, TI's first speech synthesis chip, which was the centerpiece of the Speak & Spell, a wildly successful educational consumer electronics product that was years ahead of its time.
Prior to the development of the TMS5100, DSP technology — the mathematical manipulation of an information signal to improve it — was taught almost exclusively at the PhD level and had been implemented only in expensive applications related to things like geophysical exploration and military uses.
"People couldn't believe that there was a toy that could do this kind of thing," said Alan Oppenheim, a Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT's department of electrical engineering and computer science, an early pioneer in DSP research. "It's not that it was on the forefront of new algorithms. The algorithms had been around for a while. It was the notion that they would be implemented in an educational toy at a price point that consumers could afford that was for many of us in the research community a real paradigm shift."
But the story of the Speak & Spell and the TMS5100 was only the beginning, according to Gene Frantz, a member of the original TMS5100 design team who is now a Principal Fellow at TI. "The interesting thing was when people began to out innovate us," Frantz said.
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Frantz said he and his colleagues — a group that included Richard Wiggins, Paul Breedlove and Larry Brantingham—eventually realized that the DSP they had designed as a speech synthesis chip was being used in ways they had never imagined, including in modems, hard drives and 3-D graphics. One member of the engineering team, an avid racing fan, read in a magazine that Lotus Cars was using DSP technology for active suspension in Grand Prix racing.
As a result, TI changed its marketing approach for the TMS5100's successor, the TMS3210, to reflect this broader range of uses. "At some point, you just have to agree that the market is smarter than you," Frantz said.
By this time, TI also realized that it couldn't sell DSPs as a standalone product without creating a developer environment and strong customer support as well as seeding the market with more engineers who understood DSP technology. By this time, several other firms had brought to market programmable DSPs, including Intel Corp., AT&T and NEC Corp. Still, DSP was mostly taught only at the PhD level.
TI identified a handful of U.S. universities with strong DSP curriculums and partnered with them. The firm commissioned several professors to write text books about DSP. "If you only have PhD graduates that know how to use the parts, you don't have a big market," Frantz said.