Microsoft said its researchers stored the Warner Bros. film “Superman” on a piece of quartz glass the size of a coaster.
The feat was a proof of concept for a years-long effort to store data in glass. The researchers used a combination of laser optics and artificial intelligence.
The glass is designed to last hundreds of years and withstand being baked, microwaved, scoured, doused in water, demagnetized, and subject to “other environmental threats.”
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Microsoft said its researchers had produced a piece of glass that is 7.5 centimeters long and 2 millimeters thick and contains the entire 1978 film “Superman.”
The feat is the culmination of years of research, made possible by recent advances in ultra-fast laser optics and artificial intelligence, Microsoft said in November.
Researchers used lasers to carve tiny three-dimensional etchings into the glass’s surface that could be read by machine-learning algorithms trained to look at the patterns created when a light is shined through the glass.
The research builds on other Microsoft projects that aim to store data more efficiently in the long term. A concurrent project is centered on an invention dubbed Pelican that uses cold storage to preserve dozens of disk drives, The Register reported.
Microsoft isn’t the only company exploring cutting-edge long-term storage tech. Millenniata, a startup founded in 2009, has said it developed ultra-durable DVDs that will be readable for 1,000 years.
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The project is meant to provide new ways to physically store information for long periods at a lower cost. Unlike film reels or microchips, which are relatively fragile and must be stored under certain conditions, the piece of quartz glass is “surprisingly hard to destroy,” Microsoft said.
The glass is designed to withstand being baked in an oven, microwaved, scoured with steel wool, demagnetized, and subject to “other environmental threats,” the company said.
The glass was encoded with a device called a femtosecond laser that releases extremely short pulses, allowing for a high level of detail.
“One big thing we wanted to eliminate is this expensive cycle of moving and rewriting data to the next generation. We really want something you can put on the shelf for 50 or 100 or 1,000 years and forget about until you need it,” Ant Rowstron, a partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, said in the company’s blog post.
The lasers encode data in “voxels,” a 3D unit carved directly into the glass. The 2-millimeter-thick glass can fit more than 100 layers of tiny voxels.
Once the data is encoded, it can be retrieved by a system that uses artificial intelligence and optics.
The researchers partnered with Warner Bros. to examine old film archives. Among the archives were radio serials preserved on record-sized glass discs from the 1940s, which were in good condition because of the resilience of the glass.
“If you’re old enough to remember rewinding and forwarding songs on cassette tapes, it can take a while to get to the part you want,” Richard Black, Microsoft’s principal research software engineer, said in the blog post. “By contrast, it’s very rapid to read back from glass because you can move simultaneously within the x or y or z axis.”
“Storing the whole ‘Superman’ movie in glass and being able to read it out successfully is a major milestone,” Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Azure’s chief technology officer, said in the blog post. “I’m not saying all of the questions have been fully answered, but it looks like we’re now in a phase where we’re working on refinement and experimentation, rather asking the question ‘can we do it?'”
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