Small card with a big memory

THE woman walked up to the vending machine with three children in tow. ``Let's see,'' she said aloud. ``Do you want to see `Bambi,' `Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' or `The Wizard of Oz'''? ``Snow White!'' ``Snow White!''

``OK, and I'll get `Back to the Future' for Daddy and me.''

She slipped two $5 bills out of her wallet, inserted them into the machine, punched in her selection, and out popped two credit-card sized pieces of plastic, the movies they'd watch that night. She tucked them into her purse and headed into the grocery store to do her shopping.

This scenario is fiction. But if the Optical Recording Corporation (ORC) of Toronto and its new optical storage device, called the Hi-Lite Optical Card, catch on, this scene may be a reality in the early 1990s.

In the past three years, introduction of the optical storage device known as the compact disc, or CD, has revolutionized the music recording industry. The Dutch electronic conglomorate Philips, together with Japan's Sony Corporation, pioneered the audio CD. Since then, more than 20 foreign and domestic companies, among them Hitachi, Toshiba, IBM, Kodak, Pioneer, and Verbatim, have been developing a variety of optical storage devices.

A series of arc-like tracks

ORC's approach to storage is different from that of most other designers, however. The Hi-Lite Optical Card system puts the data on the card in a series of arc-like tracks down the length of the card while the source of the laser light beam remains stationary. Regular audio CDs are rotating discs that spin like a record. Data is recorded in spiral tracks or concentric circles by a laser light beam.

Because the Hi-Lite card is held firmly in the drive, it is designed to withstand greater shock and vibration than a spinning disc. ORC engineers think this will open the market to greater military and industrial uses.

Information is stored through a pulsed-laser beam. Words, pictures, or musical sounds are converted to a digital data stream and written - or etched - onto the card in a series of micron-sized pits, or spots. They can then be read back with the use of a less-powerful laser that scans down the data track. The laser light strikes either a pit or an unexposed space and is reflected back through the optical system, where it is translated as either a ``1'' bit (a pit) or a ``0'' bit (a space). This binary code is translated and reads out as pictures, music, or text.

Data can be added to the card

The other major difference between the Hi-Lite Card and the standard CD is that data can be written onto the card. The card is in the category of optical storage devices with the rather unappealing acronym, WORM (write-once, read-many-times), and this capability opens it up to a world of technological and business interests.

In November 1986, LifeCard International Inc., a subsidiary of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland, signed an agreement with ORC to be a nonexclusive worldwide distributor for products based on ORC's optical card technology. Indeed, the medical industry is looking at the card as a personal health record. The card-holder's medical history could be stored and periodically updated: everything from dental X-rays to prescriptions.

Business, too, has taken an interest in the card as a hard disk back-up, mass-storage device, replacing magnetic tape. Insurance records, canceled checks, and personal financial records would easily be stored and updated. And, unlike the magnetic tape the optical card does not require controlled temperature or humidity conditions for storage use.

There are other potential applications for the Hi-Lite card. ``For example, at the Olympics,'' says Hugh Marks, director of marketing for ORC. ``You could have digitized photographs and digitized fingerprints on the card. And you could have a positive identification of those allowed into the infield.''

Mr. Marks says that because of the card's small size and large capacity, manufacturers of airplanes and submarines have shown interest in optical-card technology. The submarine industry, he says, wants ``maintenance information, all the operation information and statistics, and so on, and [to be able to] store it on the card because they are very concerned about space and weight.''

``Similarly,'' continues Marks, ``we've been visited by major systems manufacturers who supply the aircraft industry, both commercial and military. They are interested in replacing the `black box' with the card technology ... and for storing alternate landing strip information where you would keep a library of major airports and their patterns and layouts on board in case of a diversion.''

The concept for the Hi-Lite card sprang from inventor James T. Russell of Seattle. With its 200-megabyte storage capacity, Russell says, a single card can hold the contents of ``a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, including all of the pictures.'' Or, for those inclined to listen rather than read, one card can hold nearly 3 continuous hours of music.

The major competition to the optical card may be the integrated-circuit (IC) memory card. Also credit-card size, it stores information in surface-mounted memory chips that, like a computer's floppy disk, can have data written, read, erased, and rewritten. The cards hold 512,000 bytes of information and sell for around $50. By comparison, the Hi-Lite card should hit the market with a price tag of $2 to $4. At that price and storage capacity, IC memory cards would hardly be competitive.

But industry analysts see changes coming. Phil Devin, senior industry analyst for Dataquest in San Jose, Calif., says that by 1991 the memory card will have the capacity to store around 2 megabytes and sell for less than $10. ``It is very inexpensive to hook them to a computer,'' Mr. Devin says, ``They need no motors or disk drives to be read. They'll be a very attractive medium for software manufacturers.''

Monty Haas is host of Monitoradio's Weekend Edition.

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