GE backs 500GB holographic storage

It's been the Holy Grail of data storage since before the HAL 9000 in 2001. But holographic storage has proven hard to commercialize. Can GE finally make it happen?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

Just last year richly funded InPhase Technologies died after blowing more than $100 million and years of R&D on holographic storage. But now General Electric - who used to be a technology company before financial services became a bubble growth industry - thinks they have a winner: a 500GB holographic storage disk that uses Blu-ray technology.

60 second guide to holography Holograms use 2 coherent laser beams - a reference beam and an illumination beam - to create an interference pattern that is recorded on photo sensitive media. Shine a laser on the pattern and the original image pops out in glorious 3D. As the laser moves around - or you do - you see the image from different perspectives.

Holographic storage has some neat properties.

  • A small fragment of a hologram can reconstruct the entire data image. A scratch isn’t fatal.
  • Data density is theoretically unlimited. By varying the angle between the reference and illumination beams - or the angle of the media - hundreds of holograms can be stored in the same physical area.
  • Photographic media has the longest proven lifespan - over a century - of any modern media. Since there’s no physical contact you can read the media millions of times with no degradation.

Out with the InPhase I haven't heard an insider's story on the the InPhase debacle, but I surmise the fundamental problem was the media: disk drive advances kept raising the bar for InPhase and they kept refining their media but could never keep up. Given the billion or so the drive industry spends on magnetic media, that's a real problem for any substitute medium.

But the drive industry is facing its own crisis: we're coming to the end of what the current generation of density-enhancing technologies can do; and the next gen is proving both technically difficult - like maybe it won't ever work - and very costly. So GE's timing may be better than InPhase, who started during a period of rapid areal density growth.

The GE solution GE has a different take on the problem: they've announced development of a micro-holographic material that records data at the same speed as Blu-ray disks - using Blu-ray-type technology. They envision holoburners that also read Blu-ray, DVD and CD formats.

GE is focused on licensing their micro-holographic material to other companies to productize. While the obvious market is archiving, they also believe there is a consumer market as well. And, they note, it doesn't have to go into a disk.

Maybe the HAL 9000's storage bars will make it to market yet.

The Storage Bits take By creating the media, GE has done the hardest part. But to get prices affordable for me and other ZDNet readers it has to become a consumer product.

Consumers are already suffering from Blu-ray cost fatigue, and it isn't clear that Blu-ray buyers are looking for more than 50GB. But if the material is cheap enough to produce and the modifications to Blu-ray players and burners aren't too costly the optical drive industry could get a new lease on life.

It won't be easy (see Optical storage: RIP) but if the media is stable enough for multi-decade archiving and cheap enough to deliver massive amounts of entertainment - "get all of Seinfeld on 1 disk!" - it could see a broad market.

I hope GE and friends can pull this off.

Gallery: GE develops 500GB holographic drive

Comments welcome, of course. On the other hand, Apple appears to be pulling optical out of its trend-setting products. GE better move fast.

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