Today in Tedium: When it comes to technology, it’s easy to get hyped up about something that sounds cool, but turns out to be a bunch of hooey. Theranos, currently the subject of a Hulu miniseries, is the most famous recent example of this, but there are plenty of others out there where an idea seems to briefly draw in the attention of lots of people, only for the idea to look a lot less awesome close-up. That’s often when it becomes vaporware—and it happens even to established companies. The once-prominent Wang Laboratories, for example, once announced 14 products in a single day, but failed to release most of them, reflecting broader challenges facing the company. In this spirit, I’d like to consider a couple of unusual attempts to take the optical disc far beyond the limitations that we think of it having today. For at least one company, it looked like, at least for a brief moment, it had something as good as the tiny vial of blood Theranos was pitching—a disc that promised an insane amount of storage, despite the medium itself being transparent. (And it wasn’t the only one!) Today’s Tedium takes a look at two turn-of-the-century efforts to make optical discs fluorescent. Just like the discs themselves, you couldn’t see the finished products in the end. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“The problem with all these announcements is all we’re getting right now is hype. Where are the major players endorsing this technology?”
— An observer, quoted by a ZDNet reporter, that attended the DVD Summit in Dublin in April 2000, an event in which the company Constellation 3D announced its plans to launch a groundbreaking optical format that relied on fluorescent multi-layer storage technology. The technology, while ambitious-sounding, led to lots of observers in the audience pointing out that, hey, despite your plans to launch this in a year, you aren’t actually showing off a demo. (Embrace skeptical journalists that know how to do their jobs.)
The clear discs that (briefly) looked like they could change the world
Today, it’s fairly easy to take for granted a terabyte of data. We buy computers or hard drives with that much space for data on the regular, and think nothing of it.
But for a brief moment in November of 2000, a technology at a trade show blew the minds of observers for doing something really stunning: A terabyte of storage, on a disc that’s roughly the size of a CD-ROM, a medium that itself stored a seemingly endless amount of data when it was first released.
And craziest of all, the Fluorescent Multilayer Disc was missing a feature of most of its contemporaries needed to work: a layer of aluminum that could help to reflect the light on the disc. Instead, it used a different approach, reliant on fluorescent light, that made the discs clear in nature.
Yes, to the naked eye, the disc was nearly transparent.
Turns out that the real innovation was happening within the plastic layers itself. As Popular Science explained in 2000, the disc itself stored the layers of the movie into optical layers only really readable by a laser.
The new disc looks like a regular CD or DVD, but appears transparent. It’s made by pressing together 10 plastic films, each 15 micrometers thick, to build different pit-bearing layers, and then laminating those layers onto a substrate. The pits are then filled with fluorescent dye, which emits light when struck by a tightly focused laser. The laser in the FMD player switches focus to read each layer. Pits in the layers above and below do not fluoresce because they are struck by unfocused and weaker light. Fluorescent light is of a slightly different wavelength from the laser, so the player’s sensor can distinguish light emitted by the pits from reflected and diffused laser light.
The result was a disc that, despite its size and shape being similar to a CD-ROM or DVD, was actually something like 10 optical discs in one, with all the storage benefits that offered.
Produced by a think tank named Constellation 3D, the company saw a terabyte as a bit of a stretch goal, but had plans to bring 100-gigabyte discs to the market, at a time when Sony was first prototyping Blu-ray, which only promised 50 gigabytes for most releases. (Both, to start out, aimed for 25 gigabytes to start.)
But unlike Blu-ray, FMD utilized a traditional red laser that CD-ROMs already took advantage of. It just used it in a new way.
Vladimir Schwartz, Constellation 3D’s chief technology officer, told The Boston Globe that the technology was comparable to how doctors used fluorescent dye to diagnose illnesses. Except now, it was being used to store data in innovative ways, using the unique light emissions to store bits and bytes.
“Essentially, it’s a very old technology,” Schwartz said.
Despite being a new company with unproven technology in the market, the company drew a lot of early interest thanks to a presentation at the 2000 edition of COMDEX. The November 2000 Globe article suggested the company was working with Ricoh (which the reporter couldn’t confirm), Zeon Chemicals (which the reporter could), and Texas Instruments (which went on record to support the company in the piece).
The technology was interesting enough that tech giants like IBM and Dell were trying to get a piece of the FMD at one point.
Constellation was talking a big game and was also promising card-sized discs that were more akin to SD cards than CD-ROMs, that could fit up to 5 gigabytes of data. At a time when that was about the size of data you could fit on a standard DVD, this was impressive. (It was less so when the SD card, which could also be written to, quickly usurped it, but we have to think in 2000s terms here. At the time there was a nonzero chance the music industry could still release a new generation of physical media.)
But despite the buzz it created, the company quickly fell into disarray before it could produce a final product for consumers. A SEC report noted that the company failed to report any financial filings after the year 2000 (a year in which it lost $20 million), and after its initial funding round, struggled to convince any additional funders to follow suit.
Eventually, another company, called D Data Inc. acquired the technology, which it renamed to Digital Multilayer Disk, complete with a downplaying of storage capacity. No long was it being sold as a potential terabyte proposition; instead, it was working in 100-gigabyte sizes, closer in end result to Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Perhaps, if D Data wasn’t competing against Sony and Toshiba, it might have had a chance.
We’ll never know if FMD actually had the goods or not to take on Blu-ray, but one thing we do know is this: Despite the technology sounding like a too-good-to-be-true fever dream, the 2000 version of a tiny blood vial the size of your fingertip, fluorescent data-storage technology is totally a legit technology, and carried a lot of potential. It could have worked. Problem is, good technology isn’t enough to make a good product.
In fact, there was another scientist that was working on basically the same idea at the exact same time. The result? Also vaporware.
The abbreviation for “write once, read many,” a common term used for read-only storage formats such as optical discs. This technology is the basis for most common consumer storage formats, and also the basis for most fluorescent optical technology, which, as a reminder, has never actually hit the market.
There was a contemporary to the FMD that sounds even more like vaporware than the FMD did
So you can already see the problem with the Fluorescent Multilayer Disc. It sounds like, for its time, it promised a lot, possibly too much.
But it was only promising a terabyte of data. It wasn’t promising 10 terabytes, like some other vaporware-ish optical storage mediums of the time.
That is the claim to fame of Eugen Pavel, a Romanian inventor and scientist who has apparently been working on optical disc technology for a quarter-century or longer, with no result actually hitting the market in that time.
In 1999, Pavel first presented the Hyper CD-ROM, a glass-based medium also based on fluorescent storage, at an event in Brussels. Compared to a traditional CD, it was a thicc boi in its maximized form, around a centimeter thick, and utilizing many layers of glass to be able to store the amount of data it needs to. (But like FMD, also clear.) In later generations of the technology, he increased the maximum theoretical size from 10 terabytes to a petabyte.
The problem is, the signs are strong that it’s vaporware. In one sense, we do know certain things about Pavel; he does have a Wikipedia page for his technology, and there is this news report (not in English) about his work on YouTube. He does have a picture of himself holding an award on the internet. (Hilariously, the award is for the “Grand Prize of the Kent Premium Lights Annual Awards for Innovation,” an innovation award literally handed out by a cigarette company.) When I search for the awards that he claims to his name, the only results I find are more search results about Pavel, including the Wikipedia page for the Hyper CD-ROM, in which the talk page is filled with questions about whether or not it’s a hoax.
But looking around, I can confirm that he does have a number of patent filings to his name, including one for “Three-dimensional optical memory with fluorescent photosensitive vitreous material read and written to by laser,” a filing for which he was granted a U.S. patent in 2005 after initially filing in 1998.
“It is the object of the present invention to employ the fluorescence phenomenon to provide a WORM type 3-D optical memory,” the patent filing states. “Since the read cycle uses fluorescence rather than changes in absorption a higher sensibility is obtained.”
And his company, Storex Technologies, still appears to exist with regular updates, with a website referencing a PC World article written more than 20 years ago that no longer exists on the PC World website. These days, Storex appears to primarily be selling a quantum optical nanowriter, a tool for universities and research facilities that focus on nanotechnology.
I have no doubt that Pavel is a talented scientist, but the odds are probably low that we’ll be seeing a glass optical solution based on fluorescence seeing release in the market anytime soon, even if the technology exists. I will not give Kent Premium Lights too much guff about the level of rigor of their innovation award program, but I will say that, as a friendly reminder, that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Do some additional research first.
The year General Electric’s plastics arm added fluorescents to compact discs and other optical discs, but not in the way we’ve been talking about here. Essentially, GE Plastics started offering a technique called “Edge Glow” that allowed discs to take on flashy colors on their backsides—an innovation the company developed with Fujitsu. Essentially, GE invented a way to turn your band’s CD into a glow-stick.
So you might think, after reading all this, that fluorescent technology may not have a role in the future of data storage, that it’s an area filled with vaporware and hype and awards handed out to obscure scientists by cigarette companies.
But there is actually evidence that fluorescent imaging could prove an important form of data storage, if in not quite the same way as we imagined with those optical discs back in the day.
Last fall, a group of researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University revealed a method of data storage that involved tiny drops of fluorescent dye that can be printed by an inkjet printer and then used to store data for thousands of years, while being simpler to construct than DNA-based data storage. The dyes essentially store data at an ultra-high resolution, converting ink into different types of bytes.
“To translate the bits of information in the different dyes, the researchers used the American Standard Code for Information Interchange,” the university’s Juan Siliezar wrote. “Every number, letter, and pixel in the data they want to store is represented by a group of ones and zeros, depending on whether a particular dye is absent or present.”
There are two downsides to this approach: One, the storage medium is likely very slow to store information (at a rate of around 128 bits per second), and can only be read using special microscopes, and two, storing data requires a lot of (physical) space. A 7.2-by-7.2 millimeter surface can fit 1,407,542 bytes of data, which is about the amount you can fit on a floppy disk. If you print a full 8.5x11 sheet of paper, that is a little less than a gigabyte of data. In a world of NVMe drives, that ain’t a lot of space.
But it’s technology, it keeps improving, right? And the big innovation of the fluorescent optical discs was that they used optical data, right? So theoretically you could expand this out, tighten the distance between the dye particles, and store a lot more data, right?!
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s remember: The technology itself is only one small part of the battle in a format war. Use cases and uptake matter, too.
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