Holographic media promising but ‘not ready’ for prime time yet


Imagine 60 movies, 240 hours of television programming, 1.6 million high-resolution colour photos, or more than 150 million pages of text – all on a single disc with a shelf life of more than 50 years.

Such capabilities are not gee-wiz fiction, or years down the road.

According to Maxell Canada, they are offered right now by the company’s recently launched holographic storage media disc.

“If you want to store a lot of digital data and want it to last, this is the disc for you,” said Dennis Tuer, national accounts manager at Concord, Ont.–based Maxell Canada.

He said the five-and-a-half inch disc would be ideal for high-volume data producers such as government agencies, libraries, as well as the entertainment and media industries.

Maxell Holographic optical recording technology – developed in conjunction with InPhase Technologies of Colarado – is designed to overcome the density limits of conventional storage, the company says.

Unlike other technologies that record one data bit at a time, holography allows a million bits of data to be written and read in parallel with a single flash of light – providing significantly higher transfer rates than offered by current optical storage devices.

Maxell and InPhase have already released their first-generation cartridges holding and reading 300GB of data at 160Mbps.

Maxell is developing second- and third- generation cartridges to hold 800GB and 1.6TB of data respectively.

According to the company, the technology is suitable for long-term archival and currently provides enough capacity for live playout of many HD formats.

One Canadian analyst believes that despite its promise, it may be a while before holographic media is ready for prime time.

“The technology is not mature enough to go commercial,” according to Curtis Gittens, senior analyst, Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

Gittens, who wrote a report on holographic media two years ago, said the technology is “viable but still evolving.”

For instance, he noted that there are only two companies deeply involved in developing holographic storage media, and no vendor is even marketing a disc drive capable of reading and writing to the discs.

In addition, claims of a long archival life remain untested, the Info-Tech analyst added.

Tuer acknowledged that – while Maxell and InPhase have developed a drive for the disc, and several organizations are currently trying out the device – no other company has developed hardware for the product. “It’s sort of a cart before the horse situation,” admitted Tuer.

But he said other products in the optical technology sector were developed the same way.

Holographic discs are able to offer superior storage capacity and archival life over traditional tapes, hard drives, CDs and DVDs because of how data is stored on the disc.

While current CDs and DVDs have data encoded only on the outer surface, holographic discs record data through the depth of the disc, said Tuer.

This recording technique, he said, enables the disc to hold millions of data pages in a single location, and offer more than 63 times the capacity of an ordinary DVD.

Tuer also noted that conventional read and write discs do not have the adequate protective layering to shield the data residing on them. “When these discs are played, laser readers are actually popping holes on the surface with light. The data is light sensitive and eventually deteriorates in three years.”

The stronger polymers developed for holographic discs can protect data for more than 50 years, he said. An InPhase executive echoed Tuer’s optimism about the technology.

Holographic technology, which “[combines] high-storage densities and fast transfer rates with reliable media”, is poised to become a preferred choice for storage and content distribution, according to Liz Murphy, vice-president of marketing for InPhase Technologies.

Gittens, however, isn’t that certain.

The analyst is skeptical about the claim that holographic media provides superior storage capacity. He said companies such as Hitachi and Seagate are already marketing cheaper traditional tape cartridges with up to 500 GB of capacity.

“Unless [Maxell and InPhase] can rapidly escalate current capacity within a year, the reason to move over to holographic media will not materialize.” Price may be another hurdle.

Holographic discs are expected to cost somewhere between Can$118 and $148 per unit, and the optical drive will sell in the $24,000 range, Tuer said.

By contrast, DVDs and CDs are significantly cheaper, and a one-hour HD tape costs about $95.

Tuer, however, says holographic discs would still be cost effective, pointing out that a single disc would be capable of storing up to 200 hours of HD tape recording.

Some previous attempts by other companies to develop holographic discs were apparently unsuccessful. IBM, for instance, had been researching the technology since the 1970s, Gittens said. But a lot of initiatives were stymied by the failure to find suitable materials that could enable three-dimensional recording and yet be sturdy enough to protect the data.


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