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Beyond Blu-Ray

Holographic storage on the cheap.

A conventional DVD stores data only on its surface. But holographic storage encodes data as three-­dimensional patterns embedded inside a disc, vastly expanding its storage capacity. A long-awaited holographic drive from InPhase of Longmont, CO, is due out late this year; geared to Hollywood studios and large archives, it will cost $18,000. But a few companies, such as General Electric and Sony, are working on holographic storage systems that could be more compatible with existing technologies.

Stackable storage: A hologram is produced by two beams of light that interfere with each other. In GE’s prototype data storage system, the beams enter a disc from opposite sides.

InPhase’s drive stores information in big blasts, 1.4 million bits at a time. That makes data retrieval extremely fast, but it also requires complicated and costly optics. A prototype system from GE, on the other hand, stores information a bit at a time–just like today’s media. That means that GE’s holographic discs could be played on modified Blu-ray players, which could potentially handle old DVDs and CDs, as well.

In the GE technology, the holographic bits–each measuring 0.3 by 5 micrometers–are arrayed in a plane, with dozens of planes layered throughout the disc. Initial versions of the disc will hold 300 gigabytes of data–about six times as much as a Blu-ray disc–and might reach market by 2012. Brian Lawrence, manager of GE’s Optical Polymer Lab, says that the technology should ultimately let a disc the size of a DVD store a terabyte of data. GE faces plenty of competition, however. Besides InPhase and Sony, other companies working on holographic storage include Daewoo and Maxell.

The experimental setup includes a beam splitter (cube at left) that bounces one of the beams off of a mirror (not shown) to ensure that it travels the same distance as the other beam before striking the disc.

Courtesy of General Electric

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