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Pump Up The Volume

With the migration toward high-definition video well underway, can you ever have too much storage capacity? No, according to backers of holographic information storage systems, whose first-generation 4/01/2005 5:47 AM Eastern

Pump Up The Volume

With the migration toward high-definition video well underway, can you ever have too much storage capacity? No, according to backers of holographic information storage systems, whose first-generation technology promises to store up to 200 GB on a single 5-inch disc, with future versions holding up to 1 terabyte (TB).

WITH THE migration toward high-definition video well underway, can you ever have too much storage capacity? No, according to backers of holographic information storage systems, whose first-generation technology promises to store up to 200 GB on a single 5-inch disc, with future versions holding up to 1 terabyte (TB).

Besides high capacity, the other big selling point for holographic versatile discs (HVDs) is transfer rates of 1 GB, which is about 40 times faster than conventional DVD technology. Those abilities — combined with a steep initial cost of about $100 per disc — make HVD a better fit for commercial applications than the consumer market when the technology makes its debut, perhaps as soon as next year.

“HVD will be introduced to the enterprise market in 2006 for data archiving,” says Yasuhide Kageyama, manager of business development and marketing at Optware, a Kanagawa, Japan-based company that's developing HVD technology. “We also see potential in the movies or other industries where a lot of multimedia files are stored.”

Rethinking volumetric recording

A 5-inch HVD disc looks like a regular DVD, except that it can store about 100 DVDs' worth of content. HVD shoehorns in more bits by taking a different approach to writing and reading data.

Conventional CDs and DVDs record data on a single, thin layer, which is buried under a protective substrate. HVDs use a process called volumetric recording, which increases capacity by recording the data on a thick layer. The depth of the recording layer is what enables higher capacity and a faster data transfer rate.

Data is written to the disc through two light beams: the information beam, which carries the encoded data as a two-dimensional bit-mapped image, and the reference beam, which carries a two-dimensional bit-mapped reference pattern. When those two beams collide in the disc's light-sensitive layer, the information is recorded.

The process sounds straightforward, and it is — except that it requires complex optical systems for focusing and tracking, as well as something to keep vibration of the beam apparatus to a minimum. Those challenges are among the reasons why holographic recording still isn't commercially viable even though the concept was hatched more than 40 years ago.

Optware claims to have solved those problems with a technique that it calls collinear holography. Past approaches used two axes: the information beam coming in at one angle, and the reference beam coming in at another. Collinear holography also uses two beams, but they're on the same axis, shooting straight down into the recording layer. Optware says that its design produces an optical pick-up that's no more complex than the ones used for conventional DVDs.

Reduced complexity translates into reduced cost, which improves the chances that holographic recording can finally become commercial reality. “While other holographic recording systems require optical components located on both sides of the disc, in collinear systems optical devices are placed only on one side of the disc,” Kageyama says. “This allows the drives to be made smaller and less expensive.”

As promising as Optware's collinear holography is, it's also proprietary, an attribute that's usually a turn-off for investors, manufacturers, and potential customers in any industry because they don't want to have their entire bet riding on a single company. The good news for Optware — and potentially for HVDs, too — is that in January 2005, Ecma TC44 — a Geneva, Switzerland-based international committee that's developing standards for holographic information storage systems — began work to standardize HVD by using Optware's technology as the standard's foundation.



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Pump Up The Volume

With the migration toward high-definition video well underway, can you ever have too much storage capacity? No, according to backers of holographic information storage systems, whose first-generation technology promises to store up to 200 GB on a single 5-inch disc, with future versions holding up to 1 terabyte (TB).

Three's a crowd?

HVD isn't the only new storage standard on the immediate horizon. Two others are Blu-ray and HD-DVD, which were developed partly as a response to the trend toward high-definition video. With roughly double the capacity of today's double-sided DVDs, Blu-ray and HD-DVDs could easily fit the high-definition and standard-definition versions of a movie, plus the usual extras such as commentary and deleted scenes.

One sign that Blu-ray and HD-DVD are aimed largely at consumer applications is the effort that's gone into convincing film studios to re-issue movies in the new formats. In March, studios such as Warner Bros. and Paramount announced their first HD-DVD films, which will go on sale by fall, the same time that the players debut. Content and equipment in the Blu-ray format is expected by 2006. Although Blu-ray and HD-DVD have a head start over HVD in getting to market, that lead shouldn't hamper HVD's potential because it's pursuing a different market.

“They will complement one another,” says Akimichi Degawa, director of Intel Capital Japan, which is backing Optware financially. “HVD will be positioned toward the high end, while Blu-ray and HD-DVD are used for lower data density applications.”

A single-layer Blu-ray disc holds between 23 GB and 25 GB, while a comparable HD disc holds about 20 GB. For both technologies, the amount varies by the number of layers and whether the disc is rewriteable. (For more information about Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD, see “Two's A Crowd” in the April 2004 issue of Pro AV.) By comparison, first-generation HVD discs will store up to 200 GB, while later versions are slated to hold up to 1 TB. That sounds like overkill, but it's actually an attempt to keep pace with the movement toward high-definition video and extensive data archiving.

“HVD is well suited for supporting various trends in the IT and consumer areas,” says Werner Glinka, chairman of Ecma TC44. “Due to recent U.S. legislation such as Sarbanes Oxley, corporations are required to keep business records for many years. Enterprises are struggling to manage critical business data, and HVD-based storage systems could enable economical information lifecycle-management systems.”

Ahead of the curve

If HVD builds a following in the IT world, that would help increase sales of discs and equipment. Those volumes could drive down the price, potentially making HVD more attractive for other applications, including pro AV.

The same is true if HVD eventually moves into high-end consumer applications, which would give another boost to equipment volumes and in turn create pricing pressure. Regardless of the application, HVD's market potential hinges largely on whether it offers better value than existing or emerging technologies.

“HVD drives for the enterprise market will have costs similar to that of comparable tape drives for the same market,” Kageyama says. “Media will cost around $100 a disc. The introductory price for a HVD drive for the consumer market will be similar to that of Blu-ray disc drives when they hit the market.”

Some vendors expect that price to drop quickly, removing the barrier to consumer adoption. “Intel expects the technology will fit in with our digital home vision, where people can enjoy digital content — including music, photos, and video — on multiple devices in the home and beyond,” Degawa says.

But before any of that can happen, HVD needs standards for basics such as recording formats. Ecma plans to submit its Optware-influenced standards to the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization (ISO). “I would expect that ISO ratifies the standard within a year,” Glinka says. “I have seen companies starting product development as soon as they deem the draft standard stable enough. It's a calculated risk to shorten time to market.”

Time to market is important, but so is avoiding getting too far ahead of the demand curve. After all, not every pro AV application requires high-definition content, so in AV, HVD's future depends on whether hi-def becomes the norm and whether its approach to storage is a better fit than other techniques.

Like Blu-ray and HD-DVD, HVD also has to avoid the hubris of a build-it-and-they-will-fill-it philosophy that overlooks advances in other areas. One example is codes such as MPEG-4, which can fit a high-definition movie onto a standard 4.7-GB disc. HVD's backers don't discount those factors, but they're also convinced that the technology won't be a solution in search of a problem.

“Just like Moore's law in the semiconductor industry, the demand for high data density and high speed storage has been steadily increasing,” Degawa says. “HVD technology will meet that ever increasing demand, as it has technical advantages that the existing storage technologies don't have: higher data capacity, faster seek time, higher transfer rate, and data protection.”

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst who covers telecom and technology. He's based in Kansas City and can be reached at tkridel@kc.rr.com.



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