Not too long ago, I genuinely got excited over the prospect of having terabytes of data stored in my PC. I had been accustomed to measuring hard drive storage in gigabytes for almost a decade so the thought of having 1,000 gigs (1,000!) in one HD was a staggering concept.

And to think that the very first disk storage unit – a “state-of-the-art” hunk of circuitry built by IBM in 1956 known as the IBM 350 – was only capable of storing up to 3.75 MB of data, despite it being the size of two large cabinets.

We measure by terabytes now, but even that unit of measurement is barely scratching the surface of what the ultimate goal can allow us; said goal being to have a digital storage device that utilizes three-dimensional navigation to bring up data.

Wait, 3D Navigation?

Hard drives have advanced by leaps and bounds over the decades, but the core concept of its design remains the same: Data is written and retrieved via an encoding and decoding mechanism onto or from a spinning disk. Because the mechanism’s head can only go backwards and forwards on the disk’s plate, data is more or less placed on a linear pathway (albeit spiraled to fit inside the plate).

What 3D information navigation does is place data not only on a planar surface, but also on other planes above and below any current one. This is possible because of a radical design that utilizes two laser beams instead of one.

These two beams work in tandem to input or extract data as necessary on any given data plane. One beam acts as the signal, and the other is designated the reference beam. The signal beam takes necessary binary information from an initial LCD layer to determine which level it goes to. It then pierces through the data planes housed inside a light-sensitive crystal substrate until it arrives at the right one. Think of the signal beam as an adjustable elevator shaft searching for the right floor in the crystal substrate building to stop at.

If the signal beam is the shaft, then the reference beam is the elevator car. The reference beam is directed onto a separate path from the signal beam; and wherever the two beams intersect determines which bit of data (stored as holograms) is read. Adjusting the depth of the signal beam and the angle of the reference beam pulls up different hologram sectors as needed.

Does This Technology Exist Now?

Just as high-rise buildings maximize the area per square foot, so holographic storage makes the most of digital space to allow for significantly greater storage capacities. As holographic storage stands now, however, the technology couldn’t be farther from its ambition.

One of the more prominent early developers of this tech was InPhase Technologies (which has since declared bankruptcy). If holographic storage is to make any noteworthy development, it has to go beyond the company’s 300 GB capacity at a 20 MB per second transfer rate. Instead, those specs make the tech look feeble even against the garden variety hard drive. Of course, those figures could be because InPhase was looking to refine the two-beam mechanism first before going full steam ahead with speed and capacity increases.

What Can We Expect in the Near Future?

Although now nonexistent, InPhase’s assets have been acquired by hVault. What hVault plans to do with the holographic storage technology left behind remains to be seen, especially in light of the great strides and high practicality of cloud storage.

That said, technological developments have had a rather legendary history of catching the populace (pleasantly) by surprise. Whatever the future of storage technology will be, it’s quite certain to be the best alternative possible. Keep your fingers crossed.