In the disc war between Sony’s Blu-ray and Microsoft-supported HD-DVD, Blu-ray’s superior media storage space, crisp video quality, and overwhelming studio support made it the victor. So what’s next? Now that the game industry is moving in a digital direction with downloadable titles and cloud gaming services, some analysts argue that physical media is on its way out. Fear not, as companies are looking toward the next step in disc-based storage that could make room for games with even bigger worlds and a larger polygon count than we could ever imagine. Take a look at where physical media has been and where the industry could be headed.

Give Me Some Space (Early Days Of Data Storage)

The earliest recorded data storage device to date is the punch card from the 1800s made of hard card stock with holes punched in it to represent data. These cards were known to hold 960 bits at maximum capacity. This opened the door for paper tape, magnetic tape, cassettes, and of course, floppy disks, which housed the earliest computer games (holding roughly 1.2 to 1.4 MB). And who can forget the ROM cartridges of our beloved early consoles that we had to blow into to get working from time to time?

Then came the 1990s where the price of CD-ROM drives dropped and disc-reading speeds improved quickly popularizing CDs, which hold roughly 700MB of data. The ‘90s also ushered in DVDs with a max capacity 8.5GB for dual-layer discs. These eventually became the standard for home consoles.

In the early 2000s, Nintendo’s GameCube adopted miniDVDs for their home console, removing movie and music playback in exchange for lower production costs and a better chance at fighting piracy. The mid-2000s led to the format war between HD-DVD, supported by the Xbox 360, which had a maximum capacity of 30GB, and the PS3’s Blu-ray, which can hold as much as 50GB. Sony managed to convince movie studios for exclusive backing of this current media staple, quickly making the HD-DVD obsolete.

Where Physical Media Could Be Headed

Blue-Violet Discs
Earlier this year, Sony researchers announced the development of a next-gen “blue-violet ultrafast pulsed semiconductor laser” to be used in upcoming disc storage devices. This laser will give blue-violet discs 20 times the storage space of Blu-ray discs. A single blue-violet disc could hold more than 50 movies with high visual quality. There’s no word when this new tech will be available to consumers or at what cost, but we suspect this is something that could very well be incorporated in Sony’s next console if the price is right.

Holographic Versatile Disc (HVD)
This optical disc can hold the same amount of data as roughly 20 Blu-ray discs and requires holographic drives for use. These drives are projected to cost – brace yourself – roughly $15,000 (one disc costs anywhere between $120 to $180). For obvious cost reasons, the HVD hasn’t been made available to consumers, though Nintendo was rumored to have looked into holographic storage in the past. At this time HVDs are intended for companies with large storage needs. However, prices are expected to steadily fall.

3D Optical Data Storage
This innovation, which is still in development, has the potential of giving users mass storage at the petabyte (1,024TB) level on DVD-sized clear discs. Some companies claim the discs will be available at the end of the year, but there is no official word on costs for discs or drives. With all the extra storage space, just think about what game developers can do. No scaling back.


Will Digital Diminish Physical Media?

With successful downloadable game marketplaces on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam, it’s no wonder gamers have begun to dig an early grave for their mass of game discs collected over the years. But how many gamers even have access to these services? According to a survey released this year by the FCC, 35 percent of Americans do not have a broadband connection, with the main concern being cost. Another reason cited is no broadband availability within the area of residence, forcing these gamers out of the online and digital-only gaming arena. Shrinking a consumer base by going digital-only makes this a less viable option for console manufacturers when prototyping upcoming systems. If the PSP Go launch was any indication, it’s probably still a smart idea to make physical media an option at the very least.

Cloud gaming services such as OnLive and Gaikai could be a hint of what’s to come. Gamers can stream gameplay with the worry-free guarantee of no software download or hardware requirements, but what about connection requirements? OnLive, for example, requires a connection speed of 5 Mb/s or better, when the average household connection speed in the U.S. is 3.9Mb/s. It’s hard to say where the future is headed for cloud gaming, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on, especially as internet speeds increase per household at what we hope will be a lower cost. Japan uses an experimental Kizuna satellite that’s not intended for commercial use yet, but can download up to 1.2GB/s at a reasonable price. Until then, we may want to hold off on sending all of our discs to the landfill.

Data sizes:

Byte = 8 Bits
Kilobytes (KB) = 1024 Bytes
Megabytes (MB) = 1024KB
Gigabytes (GB) = 1024MB
Terabyte (TB) = 1024GB