Microsoft and Warner Bros trap Superman on glass slide for 1,000 years
Microsoft and Warner Bros. have teamed up with a proof of concept test for a new long-term storage technology. As part of Microsoft’s Project Silica, the two companies managed to cram the 1978 movie Superman onto a slide of silica glass the size of a drink coaster, and retrieve it. This tough new medium is designed to last centuries, and withstand punishment that would ruin film or magnetic drives.
The quartz silica glass slide measures 75 x 75 mm (3 x 3 in), and is just 2 mm (0.08 in) thick, yet it can safely store 75.6 GB, with room left over for error redundancy codes. And while glass slides may sound fragile, tests proved they were anything but. The team exposed the slides to a barrage of assault – they flooded them, microwaved them, demagnetized them, boiled them in water, scoured them with steel wool, and baked in an oven at 500° F (260° C). In all cases, the data inside remained readable.
That resilience shows that a warehouse full of these slides wouldn’t be as susceptible to disasters like fires, floods, earthquakes, power outages, or magnetic interference. They wouldn’t need as much energy to keep them under optimal conditions – data centers currently require huge amounts of energy to keep cool. And these slides take up far less physical space.
But perhaps most importantly, they’re built to last for 1,000 years or more. Magnetic storage devices can degrade in under a decade even under ideal conditions. To counter that, many companies pre-emptively transfer data onto newer devices every few years, which is a costly and time-intensive process.
With this kind of longevity and durability in mind, Project Silica isn’t aiming for consumers – these new storage media would be more suited to companies looking to archive huge amounts of data.
“We are not trying to build things that you put in your house or play movies from,” says Ant Rowstron, deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge. “We are building storage that operates at the cloud scale. 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.”
And that’s exactly the kind of thing a studio like Warner Bros. will need to store almost a century of films, television, animated shorts, radio shows and other media. By writing the classic 70s Superman movie to the glass slide, and successfully retrieving it afterwards, Microsoft and Warner Bros. have now shown that the technology is feasible.
Data is written to the glass by way of femtosecond lasers, which give off incredibly short pulses of light. This infrared signal encodes data in nanoscale, 3D versions of pixels, known as “voxels.” Each of these voxels is shaped like an inverted teardrop, and data is stored by making them different sizes and placing them at different angles. Over 100 layers of these voxels can be written into the 2-mm-thick piece of glass.
When it comes time to read the data back, a computer-controlled microscope examines the slide with a different beam of laser light. The light will reflect back to a camera at different colors based on the orientation of the voxels, and at different strengths based on their size. That information, along with the layer they’re in, can be analyzed using machine learning algorithms to quickly decode the original data.
“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,” says Richard Black, principal research software engineer at Microsoft. “By contrast, it’s very rapid to read back from glass because you can move simultaneously within the x or y or z axis.”
Quartz silica glass isn’t the only new archival data technique in the works. Other durable, long-lasting technologies that are being tested include nature’s own high-density storage medium – DNA itself – as well as organic molecules and the genomes of bacteria.
The team demonstrates the new technology in the video below.