Four and a half years later, the company is still working to develop a holographic storage product, explains Demetrios Lignos, InPhase’s vice president of engineering. Lignos is another veteran of the storage industry, a bottom-line guy, not one to be impressed by fancy science or research demos. Product development, he says, takes time; in this case, the challenge was shrinking the optical components down while maintaining the insane levels of precision needed to make holographic storage reliable. Now his team of 60 engineers is gearing up for a pilot launch in September 2006 and, if it goes well, a full release to follow. The initial product: a holographic disc drive that reads and writes 300-gigabyte discs.
But don’t throw out your hard drive just yet. The cost of InPhase’s holographic equipment will be beyond the means of consumers and most digital-content distributors for some time.
Sitting in front of six holographic disc drive prototypes, Lignos explains what makes them tick. Inside each breadbox-size drive is an elaborate system of mirrors, lenses, and liquid-crystal displays that manipulates the beam from a single laser. The disc, 130 millimeters in diameter and 3.5 millimeters thick (as compared to 120 millimeters and 1.5 millimeters, respectively, for a DVD), doesn’t spin continuously like a DVD but is mounted on a stage that positions it so that the right portion is exposed to the laser beams at the right time. The laser and camera detector are fixed, but the mirrors and lenses move to produce different beam angles. And that’s the real trick: unlike a CD or DVD, the disc can store hundreds of pages of data in a single, small area, each one inscribed by the reference beam at a slightly different angle.
The technology is here. The question now is the size of the market. “Will it actually get into the hands of many users? We haven’t proven that yet,” acknowledges Lignos. For InPhase, the first applications will lie in high-end archiving for data centers, financial institutions, and medical centers. In those markets, holographic storage will compete with magnetic tape, which also has a high storage capacity but is harder to access. It’s also less durable, lasting less than 10 years, while holographic discs should last 50 years or more.
InPhase also plans to go after high-definition digital video broadcasting and movie distribution for digital theaters: companies such as the Turner Broadcasting System want to archive videos; and one can imagine the next George Lucas extravaganza being delivered to digital cinemas on one disc instead of a stack of 100.
By 2007, InPhase plans to release a consumer electronics product, a chip that could hold up to five gigabytes – enough to store a movie or video game. The chip could compete with flash memory and give handheld devices the ability to quickly download and play back high-resolution content on the fly.
InPhase is focusing on video games, where there are fewer global standards than in movie distribution – making it easier for a small company to break in with new technology. And holographic discs have an advantage for content distributors: they are difficult to pirate. Creating a copy requires the same expensive equipment necessary to make the original.