Devices that use light to store and read data have been the backbone of data storage for nearly two decades. Compact discs revolutionized data storage in the early 1980s, allowing multi-megabytes of data to be stored on a disc that has a diameter of a mere 12 centimeters and a thickness of about 1.2 millimeters. In 1997, an improved version of the CD, called a digital versatile disc (DVD), was released, which enabled the storage of full-length movies on a single disc.
CDs and DVDs are the primary data storage methods for music, software, personal computing and video. A CD can hold 783 megabytes of data. A double-sided, double-layer DVD can hold 15.9 GB of data, which is about eight hours of movies. These conventional storage mediums meet today's storage needs, but storage technologies have to evolve to keep pace with increasing consumer demand. CDs, DVDs and magnetic storage all store bits of information on the surface of a recording medium. In order to increase storage capabilities, scientists are now working on a new optical storage method called holographic memory that will go beneath the surface and use the volume of the recording medium for storage, instead of only the surface area. Three-dimensional data storage will be able to store more information in a smaller space and offer faster data transfer times.
A hologram is a block or sheet of photosensitive material which records the interference of two light sources. To create a hologram, laser light is first split into two beams, a source beam and a reference beam. The source beam is then manipulated and sent into the photosensitive material. Once inside this material, it intersects the reference beam and the resulting interference of laser light is recorded on the photosensitive material, resulting in a hologram. Once a hologram is recorded, it can be viewed with only the reference beam. The reference beam is projected into the hologram at the exact angle it was projected during recording. When this light hits the recorded diffraction pattern, the source beam is regenerated out of the refracted light. An exact copy of the source beam is sent out of the hologram and can be read by optical sensors. For example, a hologram that can be obtained from a toy store illustrates this idea. Precise laser equipment is used at the factory to create the hologram. A recording material which can recreate recorded images out of natural light is used so the consumer does not need high-tech equipment to view the information stored in the hologram. Natural light becomes the reference beam and human eyes become the optical sensors.
Holography was invented in 1947 by the Hungarian-British physicist Dennis Gabor (1900-1979), who won a 1971 Nobel Prize for his invention.
The future of holographic memory is very promising. The page access of data that holographic memory creates will provide a window into next generation computing by adding another dimension to stored data. Finding holograms in personal computers might be a bit longer off, however. The large cost of high-tech optical equipment would make small-scale systems implemented with holographic memory impractical.
Holographic memory will most likely be used in next generation super computers where cost is not as much of an issue. Current magnetic storage devices remain far more cost effective than any other medium on the market. As computer systems evolve, it is not unreasonable to believe that magnetic storage will continue to do so. As mentioned earlier, however, these improvements are not made on the conceptual level. The current storage in a personal computer operates on the same principles used in the first magnetic data storage devices. The parallel nature of holographic memory has many potential gains on serial storage methods. However, many advances in optical technology and photosensitive materials need to be made before we find holograms in computer systems.