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Nothing new under the light

A few weeks back, we covered a new piece of technology being developed for the Library of Congress, called IRENE, that would play old vinyl and wax cylinder records by imaging, or taking many pictures, of their grooves. The groove patterns could then be translated into the sounds that would be made if played through a normal stylus. The experimental machine was developed by a researcher at the Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and may be used one day by the Library of Congress to help digitize its extensive collection of old records.

Pretty nifty stuff. Anyway, one alert reader noticed that this approach had already been done by someone in the commercial sector. He pointed to a product called the ELP Laser Turntable, which reads the grooves through a number of laser beams.

"I find it amazing how much money is wasted in the effort to do something that has been all ready perfected quite a while ago," he quipped.

In all fairness, IRENE looks to be more versatile than the laser turntable. Although ELP is pitching its product at archivists (in addition to audiophiles), it makes no mention of if the device can play warped or broken records, which is one of the chief advantages of IRENE. Nor does it look like it can play wax cylinders.

Still, I bet there may be some overlapping technologies between the two, perhaps around the hard work of figuring out how to translate variations in groove patterns to audio signals.

Nonetheless, for those of us with less esoteric pursuits, there is a lesson here to be learned: The world is a large place, and no matter what technological problem you're facing, chances are someone has already tackled the problem, or at least part of the problem. So it's always good to take a look around before building some sort of solution from scratch.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Jul 27, 2007 at 9:39 AM

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Reader Comments

Tue, Jul 31, 2007 Carl Haber CA

I am commenting on Joab Jackson's Tech Blog which points out that a commercial laser turntable already exists and suggests the the IRENE project, currently under evaluation at the Library of Congress was conceived and executed in ignorance of this.I am a member of the IRENE project and I can therefore address this.There are in fact a number of non-contact record playback technologies which have been developed and studied by groups around the world. In our published papers, which are also posted on the project website (irene.lbl.gov), we give references to all of them include ELPJ.The approach of the laser players is to replace the stylus with a spot of light which impinges on a limited region of the groove.The IRENE approach, which we can generically call "optical scanning" is unique. The idea is to create a high resolution digital image of the entire record surface and then process that image to digitally model the stylus motion and also to repair damage. The digital image can also become part of the archival material associated with the physical artifact. This can be view as the most general approach to non-contact digitization.Mr. Jackson's suggestion that we pursued optical scanning without bothering to "take a look around" is just incorrect. It is a basic step in professional scientific and engineering development to first search and understand the existing literature.A better lesson is that as computing bandwidth, data storage, and imaging technologies improve, there will often be "something new under the light".

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