In retrospect, Philips's introduction of the CD looks like an unhappy ending to Russell's work. After all, the company, along with Sony, was popularizing his technology without giving him credit. But Russell refuses to claim full right to the technology's origination. "The fact is, it's hard to say if people were working independently on this. It's not unusual for two or more people to have the same idea in entirely different places. This could have been an entirely different parallel development. But they paid for it later."
Sony and Philips paid royalties from CD player sales to Battelle, the Optical Recording Corporation, and Jacobs. Time-Warner and other disc manufacturers settled with the Optical Recording Corporation in 1992, paying $30 million for patent infringement. The court determined that Optical Recording had the sole rights over the technology mentioned in the patents. But because the patents properly belonged to Russell's employer, he never got a cent out of either deal.
Russell continued his work on optical storage systems well after the CD had become a household article, and he's come up with a new application that rivals the hard drive for storage capacity. Optical random-access memory (ORAM) is enshrined in eight patents that pack more data on a tiny surface area. Instead of spinning a disk across a focused laser, the ORAM system has no moving parts; all it takes to read memory is a pool of light. The technology would work well in hand-held computers, cell phones, pocket video games, and rugged industrial or military devices.
"The fundamental concept is sort of like a light projector. There are no moving parts or spinning disks, so the whole thing can be sealed, submerged, thrown in the mud," said Russell.
Those spinning disks slow down the rate at which a user can access information, said Russell. "With any kind of a disk, you have two delays. There's the time that it takes for the disk to spin around, and the track access [the time it takes a laser to run through a series of bits]. With this, you don't have to move anything, you just flash a light, and in a microsecond you've got 100,000 bits."
In 1991 Russell started Ioptics in Bellevue, Washington, with software entrepreneur Paul Nye. Russell had told Nye a couple of years earlier about ORAM's possibilities for data storage. "Paul thought it was a good idea," remembers Russell, "and we went from there." But despite a multimillion dollar investment from Microsoft, Ioptics no longer has any employees, and its patents were sold. Why hasn't ORAM caught on? The 1990s saw such rapid growth in the storage capacity of magnetic hard disks, it's hard to turn companies away from the market's fastest, most inexpensive storage system. Once again, Russell has a supple new idea for improving existing technology, but so far, nobody's taking the bait.