Sony and Panasonic are developing Archival Discs (AD) for release next year which will initially be able to hold 300 gb of data, and will eventually store 1 terabyte. The target market is the business sector where data storage is crucial for backups, continuity and auditing, but would these benefit the gaming sector and stave off the digital revolution?
The storage medium has gone through a number of iterations over the years, from the initial magnetic tapes and drums invented in the early part of the 20th century, through the various iterations of floppy discs in the 1970’s and 80’s, and then onto CD’s, USB, DVD, SD and Blu Ray. With each change in media we usually see one of two benefits, either speed of accessing or increased storage size, and this will only improve in accordance with Moore’s law which predicts exponential increases in computing capability based on the miniaturisation of technology. I think about how I used 3.5″ floppy discs to play games from that only held 1.44 mb of data, most photos taken on my phone are bigger than that now! The rate of change is pretty impressive when you think about it. It comes as no surprise then that we’re going to be seeing larger and more sophisticated solutions keep coming to the market. Sony and Panasonic’s approach in targeting the needs of business is sensible, but the benefit to gaming could be even better.
The idea behind AD is that they are triple layer, dual sided discs with each layer holding around the same amount as a current Blu Ray, so about 50 gb. They’ll be dust and waterproof, able to withstand changes in temperature and humidity, and built to be readable for 50 years. Should cover just about any finance or IT departments needs then! They are also planned for use in the film industry to store 4K resolution recordings, but why limit the use to those sectors? The technology will be in place to employ the new standard in PCs fairly early on – you’ll need to hook up whatever format of drive they need to transfer the data after all. Both Sony and Panasonic are saying at this time there will be no consumer focus for the new devices, though they are not ruling it out. It’s a decent move to make, get the tech embedded and proven, then move it into a consumer market. The Blu Ray format took around 6 years between the first announcements and it being officially released and used in standard home equipment. In fact, I’d heard about Blu Ray before I’d even bought a PS2. Now it’s being used as a standard in film and game distribution.
“What about The Cloud?” I hear you ask, isn’t that where everything will be stored and downloaded from in the future? We touched on this the other week with our digital future article, but it makes sense to discuss a bit again here. Firstly, “The Cloud” still needs somewhere to store data. With Facebook already looking at the use of 10,000 Blu Rays to store user photo and video uploads as the servers come under more and more strain, there’s going to be a market for archival storage. We put our digital lives in the hands of these large companies, how many of us think nothing of uploading the data but not keeping a copy somewhere for us? That’s the enterprise aspect this technology is aimed at, and makes me wonder if we’ll all need it eventually to store our digital lives and take some physical ownership of everything we have in the online space. There’s also the environmental consideration, Facebook are estimating a 50% power saving through using Blu Ray storage, with today’s electricity prices and the focus on corporate responsibility, that type of opportunity can’t be ignored.
Secondly, we are seeing the size of downloads increasing. Things are trending towards a download only market for games, but this is only sustainable as long as networks can keep up and the developers keep textures and audio to a prescribed size. I’ve seen comments on forums and Twitter over the last couple of weeks about how people are not keen on 50 gb downloads for games, especially if you’ve only got a 2 mb/s connection. You’re going to fill a 500 gb drive pretty quickly too, that’s only 10 – 12 games which will need to be deleted, re-downloaded and re-installed if you want to play them. We’ve got the option of buying games on disc at the moment, and this will continue for the next 5 – 7 years as we progress through the life of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but what happens with the next generation if the aim is download only and the devs want to up the textures and image quality to make the most of new hardware? And face it, if you give someone space they’re going to take up all of it, so we’ll be maxing Blu Ray storage pretty soon. Want to bet how long it’ll be before the first multi-disc Blu Ray game is released? PC gamers are likely to hit this threshold first as they get the higher spec version of the increasingly more complex games we’re coming to expect, and whilst they can upgrade HDD’s easily enough to have space for the game, there’s still the question of how you get it on there. Will it be multiple Blu Ray discs or online sourced? Our infrastructure is not guaranteed to meet the progress of technology, there are areas of the UK that haven’t had more than token broadband speeds for the last decade, and there are no plans to upgrade these areas any time soon.
The introduction of a new storage format that might be used for game distribution in the future has wider reaching effects beyond not having to wait days for a download. The physical sales and second hand market will be kept alive which means we’ll have choice as consumers on how and where we can buy, which promotes competition which is only good for us, and good for the overall economy. We cannot escape the tangibility of physical media, we all like a good special edition and a bit of fancy packaging. It all makes it feel more special. There’s also the fact that the core gamers in 5 years time will be comprised of mainly the core gamers from now, our current attitudes to how and where we get our games from won’t shift dramatically. Think of yourselves now, do you predominantly buy for digital download or physical disc? Why do you pick the method you do? Chances are it’ll hit one of the points mentioned already. If it doesn’t then you’re going to be happy whichever way the future goes because whatever happens, it won’t go backward from downloading titles.
Archival Discs aren’t without negatives though, there still in R&D so we’ve no clue on some of the specs. Read and write speeds haven’t been published, and as they are long term storage I’ll bet it won’t be the top priority for the engineers. The data transfer rates will have to be reasonable though, a ridiculously slow file copy isn’t going to warm itself to big business. The cost might be prohibitive too, initially, but I’d expect that to become reasonable if adoption rates are good. And that’s the biggest question, will people or companies buy into it? Sony have a habit of creating brilliant pieces of hardware that come at the wrong time (Minidisc) or are not adopted (Betamax). Fujifilm are also working on a high capacity optical disc, could we see a replay of the Blu Ray/HD-DVD battle? The main competition though might come from the solid state media area, if it can get the capacities high enough. Transfer rates are fast, they’re easy to use (usually USB), and they’re reliable because of the lack of moving parts. Optical devices are always going to have an inherent complexity which more probability of things going wrong, and that’s not what you want from a critical back up device. Lastly, from a gaming perspective, will they remove the need for mandatory installs? Solve that one and we’re back to the good old days of plug and play instant satisfaction, I’d love to see that again.
Instead of going backwards, what about the future beyond Archival Discs? If the rate of progression keeps up we’ll be filling 1 TB discs with games in no time, not too difficult if everything is at 4K resolution. There’s work being done in a couple of areas for the next step, the first being holographic systems which allow parallel read and write activities, as opposed to linear in optical and magnetic systems. This should allow massive storage and significantly faster accessing than we have now. There are even rumours flying around that Nintendo will incorporate this in a future console because they’ve filed a patent and Joint Research Agreement with InPhase Technologies around the technology. The second is molecular storage which is probably a long way off. This method works on the principle that a bit of data is stored in a molecule, with millions of molecules making up a storage device and therefore enabling huge storage potential. It’s been proven in a lab but no where else yet, and has a long way to go before it’s viable. Both these would be great alternatives to discs, at some point in the future. For now, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with the Archival Discs, and how they’ll be used across all industries.