Toshiba, NEC finalizing new optical disc format

Toshiba and NEC are putting the finishing touches to a blue-laser optical disc format that they intend to propose to the DVD Forum as a next generation format.

Announcement of the new system, which is expected sometime this or next week, will mark the beginning of a new format battle in the industry, the foundations of which were set earlier this year when a group of nine companies proposed a next-generation format called Blu-ray Disc outside the auspices of the DVD Forum. At the time Toshiba, which is chair of the DVD standards setting body, said it intended to develop a successor to DVD.

Toshiba and NEC, neither of which were among the nine companies that developed the Blu-ray format, are in the "nearly final stage" of completing their proposal for the replacement for DVD, said Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for Toshiba Corp. An official announcement from the companies together with details of the format is expected sometime this or next week, Suzuki said.

With DVD already established as a consumer video format and slowly gaining ground as a recordable format, the industry has been turning its sights on blue-laser systems.

Data is recorded on an optical disc using a beam of laser light. Because blue lasers have a shorter wavelength than the red lasers are used in CD and DVD systems, the size of the light spot made on the disc is smaller and so less space is required to store each bit of data. This means the capacity of a 120 millimeter optical disc can be increased by switching from a red to blue laser.

Blu-ray discs will be rewritable, 120-millimeter discs and have a data capacity of around 27G bytes, enough for two hours of high-definition digital television. In comparison, today's DVDs can store around 5G bytes of data per side. No details of the capacity of the format planned by Toshiba and NEC are yet available.

Blue lasers are still prohibitively expensive, but a handful of companies have announced plans to begin producing the lasers en masse, a move that is expected to reduce the price to less than US$100 per laser, from today's price of around $1,000.

For consumers, such systems are still some way off, and their appearance could be delayed by the squabbling over formats. The nine companies that have proposed Blu-ray include six companies that helped develop DVD: Hitachi Ltd., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic), Philips Electronics NV, Pioneer Electronics Corp., Sony Corp. and Thomson Multimedia SA. They have been joined by Sharp Corp. and South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

The situation is somewhat similar to the one that preceded the development of DVD. Before a consensus was reached for a replacement to the CD for video applications, two formats were slugging it out: Super Density from Toshiba and Matsushita, and Multimedia Compact Disc (MMCD) from Sony and Philips.

It also mirrors the battle in the recordable DVD space, where DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW are currently slugging it out with DVD-RAM sitting on the sidelines.

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