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Microsoft Archived 1978 ‘Superman’ Movie on Glass Coaster

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Microsoft Archived 1978 ‘Superman’ Movie on Glass Coaster

Richard Donner’s iconic Superman movie has been archived on what is really a glass coaster.

Warner Bros. and Microsoft teamed up to store and retrieve the whole 1978 movie on a 3×3-inch transparent slab.

This breakthrough is the first proof-of-concept experiment for Project Silica, a Microsoft Research project that uses super-fast laser optics and A.I. to reserve data in quartz glass.

Unlike delicate celluloid, hard glass can resist being boiled, baked, microwaved, drowned, and demagnetized, among other environmental disasters that could destroy valuable cultural archives and historic treasures.

“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 a statement.

“I’m not saying all of the questions have been fully answered,” he continued. “But it looks like we’re now in a phase where we’re working on refinement and experimentation, rather [than] asking the question ‘Can we do it?’”

Microsoft senior optical scientist James Clegg places a bit of glass into a system that uses optics and AI to recover and read data stored on the glass. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Banks / Microsoft)

Warner Bros. reportedly approached Microsoft after learning about its new tech.

“When we learned that Microsoft had developed this glass-based technology, we wanted to prove it out,” according to WB Chief Technology Officer Vicky Colf.

As anyone who’s had a hard drive knows, long-term storage is often anything but: Magnetic tape remains for five to seven years, file formats become out-of-date, and upgrades are costly.

Glass, however, is the thing we need.

Femtosecond lasers—commonly used in LASIK eye surgery—permanently alter the structure of the glass. So you only need to write the data once for it to be saved for centuries.

“One big thing we wanted to eliminate is this expensive cycle of moving and rewriting data to the next generation,” Ant Rowstron, partner deputy lab director of Microsoft Research Cambridge, said.

Warner Bros. moves its own digital content—known as “cold” data—every three years to save its library from degradation.

With a nearly 100-year history in cinema and television, the production company holds one of the world’s broadest and most significant media and entertainment archives.

“Imagine if a title like The Wizard of Oz or a show like Friends wasn’t available for generation after generation to enjoy and see and understand,” Colf said. “We think that’s unimaginable, and that’s why we take the job of preserving and archiving our content extremely seriously.

Researcher Youssef Assaf drops a square of silica glass in a kettle of boiling water to demonstrate its durability, (Photo Credit: Jonathan Banks / Microsoft)

“Our challenges are unique in their scale,” she continued. “But they are certainly not unique in terms of the problem we are trying to solve.”

Microsoft is surely off to a great start. But there is a lot more extra work ahead to meet WB’s standard of owning its own base to read data from glass archives.

“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,” Rowstron said. “We’re not trying to build things that you put in your house or play movies from. We are establishing storage that operates on a cloud scale.”

Microsoft Research Cambridge co-operated with the University of Southampton to produce Project Silica.

“If it works for us, we strongly believe that this will be an advantage to anyone who wants to save and archive content,” Colf added.

1. Warner Bros. stores movies in cold storage vaults

(via John Brecher/Microsoft)

2. ‘Superman’ in a cold storage vault

(via John Brecher/Microsoft)

3. ‘Superman’ saved on reels of the movie and on glass

(via John Brecher/Microsoft)

4. Rokas Drevinskas examines laser alignment components

(via Jonathan Banks/Microsoft)

5. Silica glass in a system that uses femtosecond laser beats to store data

(via Jonathan Banks/Microsoft)
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