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PLANNED 'LASERCARD' KNOWS ALL, SEES ALL Optical disk could include credit cards, your identification and medical history


Several years ago, an advertising campaign for a major credit card company promised that "all you need," from airline tickets to instant cash, could be attained in its piece of plastic.

Now a Mountain View, Calif., company is preparing to take that promise several steps further -- by offering optical disks that can digitally store more than a thousand pages of information -- all on the face of a credit card.

Known as the Lasercard, the new data format can record a person's entire medical history or become a publishing medium for whole books or software programs. It could act as a one-stop shopping card that contains an individual's collection of credit cards, complete with several forms of personal identification to prevent fraudulent use.

Drexler Technology Corp., creator of the card, has recently announced the first significant orders for this storage medium. The product relies on optical recording technology -- the process of reading and writing data with light -- the same technique used to control compact disc players.

For now, Jerome Drexler, the company's founder and chief executive, aims to take the publicly traded company into specific niches of the information storage business, rather than trying to capture the financial services industry.

"We're looking at Laser cards as a new form of floppy disk, with a higher capacity that is more stable and mailed easily," he said. "Our goal is to capture 5 to 10 percent of the floppy industry."

Lasercards hold 4.1 megabytes of storage capacity, or nearly 1,200 document pages, three times more information than high-density computer disks and vastly more room than the 40 characters available on conventional credit card magnetic strips. Information can be written on the card, read repeatedly, but never erased.

As the first commercially available use of optical disk technology in a pocket-size format, Laser cards could one day replace the current supermarket point of sale recorders, security access systems and microfiche or other data storage media.

While the technology was created on-site at Drexler more than a decade ago, the player devices necessary to read Lasercards have only begun to be built in the past couple of years.

"We're in the beginning stages of commercialization," said Johanna Protsik, Drexler's manager of public relations. But with recent orders numbering several hundred thousand cards and major hardware manufactures offering the reader equipment, "we're now poised for takeoff."

Several large Japanese equipment manufacturers, including Omron Corp., the principal maker of automated teller machines, and Olympus Optical Co. have signed up to create peripheral devices such as Lasercard readers, special cameras and fingerprint scanners that operate the cards.

"It's a great idea, but you really have to have the infrastructure to support this," said Patty Chan, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose. Ms. Chan notes that until the company succeeds in wooing major vendors away from conventional magnetic card or floppy disk technologies, there is little likelihood that the product will become a hit with convenience shoppers.

"It's kind of a chicken and egg situation: I think the chicken should come first and the eggs will follow," she said.

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