Employee Spotlight on One of LightTools’ First Developers, Bob Mortensen

Optical Solutions Editorial Team

Jan 23, 2024 / 4 min read

Happy 29th Anniversary to LightTools, which was released in January 1995! Meet Bob Mortensen, Sr. Staff R&D Engineer and one of the  first developers of LightTools. He designed and implemented many of LightTools’ major subsystems, and he also contributed to the development of multiple CODE V features. Bob joined the team in 1990 and plans to retire this year after a long and successful R&D career. We interviewed him to find out more about the initial development of LightTools.

Q: What was it like to work on the first release of LightTools?

I can recall in mid-1990, right at the start of my time at Optical Research Associates (ORA), going into Tom Walker's office to see a very early "spinning lens" proof of concept of what would eventually become LightTools. The program displayed a single lens element which the user could interactively rotate to view from any angle. The user was also able to aim rays and immediately see how they were refracted by the lens. Ground-breaking stuff for 1990. This was running on what was likely a Sun Microsystem's SPARCstation 1; a state of the art 20 MHz (yes, MHz), maximum 64 MB of RAM (yes, MB) desktop computer. Everyone in ORA was excited by the possibilities that this presented. Over the next few months, the development team was formed for ORACAD. ORACAD was the working name for what eventually became LightTools. 

Bob Mortensen, one of LightTools' first developers | Synopsys
Left to right: Mike Hayford*, Tom Walker*, Tom Bruegge*, and Bob Mortensen (*currently retired) | Synopsys Optical Solutions Blog

Left to right: Mike Hayford*, Tom Walker*, Tom Bruegge*, and Bob Mortensen (*currently retired)

Tom was the lead software engineer working closely with the team's optics expert, Mike Hayford. I was recruited given my prior work with Sun workstations, graphics, and user interface. Others were called in as needed to work in their areas of expertise. For example, Daren Reid developed the file format, Tom Bruegge worked with Mike on the optics code, and Phil Suematsu worked on mathematic algorithms and development tools. 

LightTools 3D Design view of a binocular system, circa 1990s | Synopsys Optical Solutions

LightTools 3D Design view of a binocular system, circa 1990s

At the time, Tom and Mike chose the Objective-C language for development. This was in the early days of object-oriented design and compiler support for these concepts was in its infancy. The design and implementation of then ORACAD relied heavily on several features of the language and its included runtime libraries. The compiler we used was from a third-party vendor and was the only one available. At some point we learned that the vendor was "closing shop," causing us to search for a new compiler. Since there were no other Objective-C compilers available, we had to make the tough call to switch to a C++ compiler (provided by Sun Microsystems) and port our code from Objective-C to C++ -- not a trivial task. 

As I recall, Tom and Mike continued feature development while Phil and I prepared for the port. Phil worked on a tool to help translate Objective-C syntax to C++ syntax while I implemented a replacement for the Objective-C runtime library. Once Phil and I had completed our parts, it was all hands on deck to perform the actual port. While the tools Phil and I developed were extremely helpful, there was still a lot of manual work needed. The C++ language was also in its early years so the compiler, libraries, and tools were immature; especially compared to what is available today. All of this set back our development schedules by several months. 

Another huge challenge we had was developing the geometry engine we needed to model the complex physical objects of an optical system including lens elements and mechanical structures. This is another technology that was just emerging, and no commercial implementations were readily available. Thanks to a lot of research, mainly by Tom, we were able to development a pretty complete and fully featured solid modeling engine. Using this engine, we were able to develop several very complex example models (modeled mainly by Tom) including an SLR lens with the full camera body, a microscope with a housing, and a helmet with a head-up display. I believe these models are still included with LightTools today. 

This engine served LightTools well for several years, but at some point better commercial packages became available and eventually replaced our home-grown solution. 

Q: What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

I'm proud of what we accomplished with LightTools, especially seeing how far it has come over the years, what it has become, and what it has been used for. We were pushing the standard not only in computer-aided optics design, but in interactive CAD in general. 

Of course, it was also an honor to be a major contributor to the ongoing development of CODE V. Knowing that there are many customer success stories that were aided by the features we've developed adds to the sense of accomplishment. 

Q: Who was influential in your career?

Tom Walker and Mike Hayford (now retired) have been very influential. They were tremendous role models with their dedication to the project and company, their ability to continually learn new technologies and apply them to our problems, and the way they worked with others and challenged us to be the best -- all while leading by example. These are qualities I’ve tried to emulate throughout my career. 

Q: What are some of your favorite career memories?

Probably the most memorable thing from my ORA/Synopsys days is the comradery that the development team and ORA developed through activities like our daily lunchtime Hearts game, Friday off-site lunches, company picnics at Calamigos Ranch, early morning rounds of golf, etc. 

Q: What are your retirement plans?

In the short term, there are plenty of maintenance/improvement tasks around the house that have been neglected these past few years. Beyond that I have several hobbies that I should have more time for including woodworking and scale model building. I'd also like to get back to playing golf for some exercise. 

I’d also like to travel to some destinations that are "on the list,” which include the UK, Germany, Spain, Norway, New Zealand, etc. Also, being big Los Angeles Kings fan, I hope to attend many road games with the goal of visiting as many other NHL arenas as possible.

Congratulations to Bob for his long and successful career, and all of us at Synopsys Optical Solutions wish him the best in his retirement.

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