Bye-Bye CD's, Hello FMD's


Wednesday, September 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Forbes.com recently unveiled its conception of the personal computer in 2010. Among the ultra high-tech components envisioned is a hard drive capable of holding up to 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data.


A Manhattan company called Constellation 3D is on the verge of turning that vision into reality, but in a portable format similar to traditional CD-ROMs.


Using what it calls fluorescent multilayer discs, or FMDs, Constellation 3D says that it hopes to begin rolling out next fall a new type of storage medium that makes DVD look like 8-track tape.


"DVD is an incredibly successful format," says John Ellis, vice president of marketing for Constellation 3D, or C3D. "We expect it to be successful for a long time to come, but it has its limits, and we expect to be the next thing after DVD when you need to have more data on the disc."


Fluorescent discs are essentially DVDs with much greater capacity. A regular DVD is capable of holding up to 18 gigabytes of data. This is only possible if the disc is double-layered, at 4.7 gigabytes per layer, and double-sided.


Fluorescent dye


C3D is working on a disc with up to 100 layers, each capable of holding 4.7 gigabytes. The technological leap is possible through the use of fluorescent dye and a new filtering scheme developed by C3D.


Each layer on an FMD is coated with a transparent, fluorescent dye, unlike the reflective, metallic coating on traditional CDs or DVDs.


When a laser is shined on the FMD, each layer emits a slightly different wavelength of fluorescent light, allowing the laser to read data and differentiate among the multiple layers on the disc, something that traditional DVDs cannot do.


Using a proprietary filtering technology developed by C3D, the FMD drive blocks out the rebounding laser light while allowing the fluorescent light to be read and interpreted as data.


The first wave of FMDs will hold anywhere from 25 to 140 gigabytes, depending on demand. Eventually, once blue laser technology is perfected in the next couple of years, storage capacities of 1 terabyte or more will be possible.


Consumers will eventually see the discs offered with personal computers as an alternative to CD or DVD drives, but one of the initial uses will be in digital cinema.


Digital cinema


Digital cinema is the next stage in movie theater technology, but if you haven't heard of it, don't be surprised. It's still a couple of years away from mainstream adoption, and currently only about 30 theaters worldwide use digital projection technology.


In digital cinema, the movie is encoded digitally, just like any other piece of computer software, and projected on the screen using a digital projector that bounces the image off of millions of microscopic mirrors.


The result is an exceptionally sharp picture with no degradation over time, unlike traditional film that develops scratches and fades after repeated projections.


Going digital, however, means that movie studios and theaters need a way to conveniently store and transmit the movies, and that's where C3D comes in.


Because digital cinema requires much greater storage than a single DVD can provide, C3D plans to market its discs as an efficient way to store and transport digital movies.


"It's off-the-shelf technology, and Hollywood buys off-the-shelf technology," says Jim Mendrala, a digital cinema systems engineer in California who also runs www.tech-notes.net, a Web site dedicated to digital movies and television. "That's where the fluorescent DVD is probably a good idea."


While there are several competing delivery methods for digital cinema, Mr. Mendrala says, almost all those methods require some sort of storage medium, such as FMD, once they reach the theater.


Experts believe that digital cinema and FMD will be highly cost-effective. The typical cost of a reel of film is about $2,000. With the movie stored digitally on a small FMD, storage and distribution costs drop to a couple of dollars per film.


FMDs should also dovetail nicely with the introduction of high-definition television.


To display true HDTV-quality images, traditional DVD simply cannot provide the necessary capacity. Once again, C3D hopes to take advantage of this and eventually replace DVD players in the same way that DVD players are beginning to eclipse VCRs.


Under current government regulations, all television stations are required to switch to high-definition signals by 2006, meaning that if people want to rent HDTV-quality movies, companies such as Blockbuster are going to need to upgrade.


"The movie industry makes their bread and butter from the television industry," says Mr. Mendrala. "The money that comes into the studios comes in from television, DVDs, VHS tapes and what have you. The box office is small potatoes now. It used to be that the box office was the big thing, but that's not true anymore and it hasn't been for the past 10 or 12 years."


Trailing behind the movie industry in applications for FMD technology is the computer game industry, says C3D's Mr. Ellis.


"The games market is becoming increasingly like Hollywood," he says, and as the production costs and hardware requirements for high-profile computer games continue to increase, those games will become much bigger and require a correspondingly greater storage medium.


C3D is also working on a replacement for the popular Flash memory used in portable digital devices such as MP3 players, digital camcorders and personal digital assistants.


Using technology similar to the fluorescent discs, C3D has created fluorescent cards, or FMCs, that are about the size of a credit card and can hold 5 gigabytes of data.


"In the near future, the card application has such incredible advantages over the data storage which is available in mobile computing now," says Mr. Ellis.


"For example, 64 megabytes of Flash memory can cost $180 to the consumer, and we're talking about a card which holds 5 gigabytes and could be sold to the consumer at 10 bucks or less."


Wolfgang Schlichting, a research manager for removable storage for International Data Corp., also says that FMCs could dramatically improve portable electronic devices.


"More and more of us are using devices smaller than a PC, this hand-held kind of technology," he says.


"Here storage requirements are similar to what you would like on a PC but clearly you don't have the space to put it in there. Delivering high capacity in a very small volume is a very promising approach."


"This, I believe, is an approach that could be even more promising than just the mainstream data storage approach or even the consumer approach."


However, he cautions that C3D's discs and cards probably won't be widely adopted until they offer writing and rewriting capacity, just like current CD-R and CD-RW drives, at a reasonable cost.


C3D is promising that the ability to record onto the discs and cards will quickly follow the launch of the new devices. In addition, FMD drives will be fully compatible with existing CDs and DVDs.


The company is not manufacturing the drives themselves, though. Instead, it plans to license the technology to manufacturers and focus on research and development.


C3D recently signed its first developer, Japan-based Ricoh, to begin building and distributing FMDs and drives.


"We're very actively talking to all of the major drive manufacturers, all of the major disc manufacturers, computer manufacturers, as well as content people, typically movie studios," says Mr. Ellis.


Which is just what they should be doing, Mr. Schlichting says, if C3D expects to turn its invention from interesting gadget to must-have appliance.


"Without content produced for this format, nobody is going to be interested in it," he says. "To get content, you've got to show some momentum and show an installed base, ideally. So this is really an uphill battle for any small company and for any new format."


But once C3D is able to achieve rewritability at a price roughly equal to what customers are paying for CD-RW drives, says Mr. Schlichting, "that's a very different ballgame."On the Web


To learn more about Constellation 3D's FMD disc go to www.constellation3d.com. To learn more about the Forbes concept computer for 2010 go to Forbes.com