Hologram technology: the sub-atomic future of storage?

I was recently talking to some folks at Google about storage, specifically the amount of data that's being stored on the cloud as users upload things like photos and YouTube video clips.Gigabytes.

I was recently talking to some folks at Google about storage, specifically the amount of data that's being stored on the cloud as users upload things like photos and YouTube video clips.

Gigabytes. Terabytes. Petabytes. I couldn't help but wonder, as we talked about all of this data, if the clouds are destined to burst from data overload?

But a recent technological breakthrough at Stanford University suggests that the future will rely less on increased storage capacity and more on the shrinking of the actual data itself.

Over the weekend, Lisa Krieger - a former colleague from my days at the San Jose Mercury News - published a story about Stanford physicists who broke a historic record for writing so small that 2,000 copies of the 32-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica would fit on the head of a pin. For computing, it becomes a big deal because the "sub-atomic" breakthrough offers greater speed and storage capacity. She writes:

Until now, it was assumed that the information, such as computer bits, could not be smaller than an atom... But Stanford's new letters are subatomic in size. That's because the team took advantage of a unique feature of an electron — its ability to bounce between different quantum states. In the vibration-proof basement lab of Stanford's Varian Physics Building, the scientists encoded the "S" and "U" within the patterns formed by the electron's activity, called wave function, on the surface of a sliver of copper.

In addition, the scientists showcased some work on holography, stacking two layers of information within the hologram.

Robin Harris, who writes ZDNet's Storage Bits blog, chimed in with more details about the efforts surrounding holography:

Traditional holograms - like those nifty green reflection skulls you see in trinket shops - use a laser. The laser is split into a reference beam and an object beam that has been reflected off the 3D surface you are recording. The 2 beams are recombined and the resulting interference pattern stored in a 2D photographic emulsion. When viewed, the the hologram reproduces the object as it appeared in 3D space so it appears to rotate as it is moved.

I'm no physicist but I was particularly intrigued by this breakthrough and what it could mean for the future of computing. It's easy to get caught up in the techie gadget or service of the month. But it's nice to know that - even in tough economic times - innovation is alive and well in Silicon Valley.