Tuesday, December 4, 2007

So What Comes After High-Definition DVD?

Reader Phil Julian asks: Over many years, I've been an early adopter of all kinds of tech, and now that I'm older and maybe a bit wiser I want to quit buying the same video over and over again. I've had it all, videodiscs, VHS, laserdisc, DVD... and now they want me to buy HD DVD or Blu-ray, geez! My question is, will the HD formats coming out now be it for the forseeable future, or is there something bigger and better on the horizon?

Well, Phil, there's always something bigger and better on the horizon, you know. Now that video formats are really just part of the computer storage industry, there's really no end in sight when it comes to this business. Magnetic storage follows Moore's Law closely, with capacity doubling every 18 months or so. Optical formats are a little more erratic due to compatibility issues, but you can be sure that blue-laser DVD, the basis for both HD DVD and Blu-ray, is hardly the end of the line.

So what's next? Here's a look at some technologies we may or may not see down the road, turning our high-def boxes into obsolete junk.

Ultraviolet Laser - We started with red lasers (CD and DVD), went to blue (HD DVD and Blu-ray) and up next may be ultraviolet. Each progression represents a shorter-wavelength laser beam, which means data can be packed more tightly on a disc. Pioneer developed, in theory anyway, an ultraviolet technology that would put up to 500GB on a disc, but little has been said of this technology since 2004. Still, there's no reason it couldn't work as advertised.

Holographic Storage - Holographic data storage uses lasers to store information in multi-dimensional space instead of just two dimensions, like current optical discs. Theoretically, capacity could be about one trillion bits in a cubic centimeter of storage material, or about 125GB per cc, and maybe a terabyte on something roughly the size of a standard DVD. Daewoo Electronics publicly demonstrated a prototype of this technology in 2005 (and this one allegedly worked; history is littered with scam artists all claiming to have figured out holographic storage), and pundits regularly trot out the holodisc as a "coming soon" technology. However, I've been reading and writing about it coming "any day now" since 1994 (see photo for another holographic drive that turned out to be vaporware). I'm not holding my breath.

Flash - Forget lasers and optical tech altogether: Here's where the juice really is. The latest reports point to terabyte thumbdrives in your pocket in the near future, more than enough for even the highest resolution movies. Flash has numerous advantages over optical media: No moving parts, better durability, smaller form factor. Alas, pricing is a concern for now. But I don't think it's farfetched to think that in 2012 studios could be selling movies on flash cards instead of disc. Just imagine the vending machines!

Quantum Technology - Sure, in 2107.

Back to DVD - It's possible high-definition DVD could fail altogether. I don't know anyone aside from serious geeks who feels a compelling need to upgrade to high-def. Alas, they could just force it on us. See also: Windows Vista.

Nothing - There's a strong likelihood that movies will follow music in the move to a strictly downloadable format. File sizes remain a challenge, and they're going to get bigger. DRM is another issue: The movie companies are far less likely to follow music studios in the push to drop protection. I'm skeptical that they'll ever drop copy protection of some sort, and that will stifle movie downloads for the forseeable future.

Whatever does come next, it's going to be a while. Electronics companies are getting beat up over the high-definition war already, and the scars of this battle are going to take years to heal. Heck, it's going to take years just to finish off this war as it is... and who's going to want to buy new media again.