Friday, 19 September 2014 17:25

Piql puts bits on film

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Everything old is new again.

Back in the 1980s, my then employer was approached by Hudson-Allen, an Australian startup that had come up with a way of storing digital information on microfiche.

This 'binary microfiche' technology was invented and patented by Geoff Hudson (disclosure: Dr Hudson and I had previously been colleagues at The University of Melbourne).

The idea was to leverage the then-common use of COM (computer output microfilm/microfiche) for long-term human-readable archives and employ much of the same infrastructure to provide machine-readable archives with a shelf life measured not in years or decades but centuries.

While colour films can fade fairly rapidly, the basic silver halide chemistry used in black and white film is remarkably stable. Given the right substrate and appropriate storage conditions, images can be preserved for hundreds of years. Indeed, the earliest surviving photograph is nearly 200 years old.

To the best of my knowledge Hudson-Allen failed to get off the ground, but Dr Hudson is still working in the IT industry and still inventing - his most recent patent application is for the Naturise clock, an alarm clock that "wakes you up so you feel like getting up."

But good ideas never go away completely.

A €20 million research project, supported by the EU and the Norwegian government, has Norway-based Piql develop a system for storing digital data on reels of film - the piqlBox.

"Our goal has been to keep valuable digital data securely preserved and accessible for 500 years. Ensuring that the data cannot be modified or deleted is imperative in this context." said Piql managing director Rune Bjerkestrand.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Piql's design is that each reel of film contains human-readable instructions - including source code - for retrieving the digital data.

The system is available through a network of service providers, currently in Austria, Brazil, Germany, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

It seems ironic that just as digital cameras have supplanted film photography, our most important images - and other data - may be archived as a series of bits on photographic film.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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