Lasers Are About to Enter Their Blue Period

New disks mean vastly enhanced TV and movies

Think of them as supersized grandchildren of the CD or as genetically enhanced offspring of the DVD. In a few years, for just a few hundred dollars, consumers will start snapping up next-generation digital recording systems that will employ exotic blue-violet lasers to etch 13 hours of video--more than six full-length movies--onto disks the size of standard music CDs.

With a capacity of about 30 gigabytes of data, compared with 4.7 GB for today's DVDs, the new disks promise a richer-than-ever digital experience. Video games will acquire photorealistic graphics and far more elaborate story lines. And TV viewers will be able to store hours of high-definition TV permanently on low-cost disks. If product-development plans at Japanese electronics companies pan out, the first commercial machines are expected to appear in late 2003. And because all of the new machines will be recorders, not just players, analysts expect consumer adoption to be swift.

The key component at the heart of the new recording systems has been the object of intense research in a dozen Japanese labs since the 1980s. It's a blue-violet version of the tiny red and infrared laser diodes that are used to read and write digital information on CDs and DVDs. Shuji Nakamura, the Japanese researcher who built the first blue-violet laser diodes in 1996, believes the market for the component alone will be enormous. Before Japan's big electronics makers can cash in, however, they'll have to avoid a repeat of the standards wars that have dogged the rollouts of DVDs, CDs, and videotapes.

It's easy to understand why Japanese engineers are so beguiled by the color wars. Because the wavelength of blue-violet light is shorter than that of red, the blue laser beam can be focused on a smaller area of the disk. The narrower the focus, the higher the recording density and the greater the overall disk capacity. A CD engraved with a red laser can hold about 1 gigabyte of data, while a DVD holds almost five times that amount. And with blue-violet lasers, capacity should increase a further five to six times.

The technology is proven, but that's no guarantee of a smooth migration. Already, a standards war much like those that have broken out over every major medium since the videocassette is threatening this latest optical innovation. In February, nine electronics companies, led by Sony (SNE ), Pioneer, and Matsushita Electric Industrial (MC ), unveiled a standard format dubbed the Blu-ray Disc, which incorporates blue-violet laser technology and sets the recording capacity of the disks between 23 and 27 gigabytes per side. Within the coalition, Sony, Matsushita, and Hitachi (HIT ) have demonstrated prototypes of lasers that meet the requirements.

The group, however, faces competition on several fronts. On one side stands Toshiba Corp, which has refused to endorse the Blue-ray Disc. That's troubling because in the early 1990s, Toshiba led the alliance of electronics and film companies that produced the standard for today's DVD systems, trouncing a competing effort by Sony and Royal Philips Electronics (PHG ) of the Netherlands. Earlier this year, Toshiba, which continues to head the DVD Forum, demonstrated its own rewritable optical disk, boasting a capacity of 30 GB per side. And Toshiba is not the only holdout: Mitsubishi Electric and AOL Time Warner (AOL ), both important members of the DVD Forum, have yet to join the Blue-ray Disc group.

There may be legal wrangles as well. Nichia Corp., a small lighting company in western Japan where Shuji Nakamura did his pioneering research, is expected to market the world's first commercial blue-violet laser diode later this year. Nichia, however, has refused to license the technology and has threatened to file lawsuits against any company that infringes on its patents for such diodes. "It has been tough making our own blue laser because we've had to work around Nichia's patents," complains Kazuhisa Yamamoto, the researcher who last year developed Matsushita's laser, capping a 14-year development effort.

Not everyone feels hemmed in, though. Sony, which is close to developing its own blue-violet diode, expects to nab a nice chunk of the $400 million a year in industrywide royalties that blue-laser devices are expected to generate. Cree Research Inc. of North Carolina, a major producer of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), isn't far behind, according to Nakamura, who is now a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "Cree is in the best position after Nichia," says the engineer, who has been advising the U.S. company.

Thanks to Nakamura's move to the U.S. and his partnership with Cree, leadership in cutting-edge lasers could shift to North America. "Japan failed to recognize how brilliant Nakamura really is," points out Gerhard Fasol, head of Eurotechnology Japan, a Tokyo tech consultancy. "It may lose its edge in this important field as a result." True to form, Nakamura is debugging his next breakthrough: an ultraviolet laser that he hopes will make possible disks that hold twice as much as the upcoming generation. That could give rise to a whole new species of couch potato.

By Irene M. Kunii in Tokyo

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