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The Shape-Shifting of CD-ROM

Mark Fritz

August 2000 | An Amway salesman handed me what looked like a laminated business card with a hole in the middle. I couldn't help snickering as I turned it over in my hands. "Neat, a business card made to look like a CD," I said. "No, it is a CD," the salesman said. "No kidding," I said, skeptical as ever.

Later, still disbelieving, I put it in my CD-ROM drive and, by golly, it actually worked. My senses were assaulted by a glitzy multimedia presentation streaming from the disc. Lo and behold.

Since then I've seen CDs shaped like houses, hearts, sprockets, puzzle pieces, human feet, a fist, a baseball glove, a dragon, and Santa Claus. They've grabbed my attention every time. To me, they seem destined to become a major new tool for marketing and promotion. But not everyone is so bullish about this market.

John Town, vice president of research & development for Ruckersville, Virginia-based replicator Technicolor, says these non-standard CDs are "kind of a fad." He feels that they represent a "boutique manufacturer's market," and says that Technicolor has no immediate plans to purchase lines of replication equipment to make them.

Ray Freeman, facilitator of the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) in Santa Barbara, California, calls these discs "novelty items," but hastens to add, "I don't mean to demean them. But the question is: to what extent will they end up being common?" In other words, are they just a flash in the pan, or do they have staying power? Before we go any further, we should perhaps differentiate between the CDs that are shaped like--well, like just about anything you can imagine--and CDs that are shaped like business cards. Both types are being called "custom-cut" CDs though "custom-shaped" is probably a better term, since not all of either type are literally cut down from standard round CDs. Some custom-shaped CDs (many of the business card ones, in particular) are actually injection molded. Both card and non-card shaped CDs diverge from the norm, but it looks like the future may not be as bright for the one type as for the other.

Although they seem new to most of us, these shaped CDs have been around for five or six years. Apparently, they've finally reached critical mass after a gestation period. Suddenly, they are cropping up all over the place. And it's not just computer industry geeks who are handing them out at COMDEX. I've seen shaped discs from huge companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Coca-Cola, and Disney, as well as from small companies such as Bicon Dental Implants, Super Plug Engine Protection, Guess Watches, Snowcoach Tours, and Sandstone Construction. Even individuals are handing out business-card CDs; I've seen discs for a lawyer, a CPA, a financial manager, a movie stunt coordinator, and Ohio's secretary of state.

Except for a few industry insiders who have been watching these odd CDs simmer for five years, most people have been surprised at how quickly the market for odd-shaped CDs has grown up. Cutting Edge ShapeCD Inc. of Toronto reports that it grossed half-a-million dollars in its first three months selling card discs. And Pennsauken, New Jersey-based Disc Makers says their trademarked CardDisc sales already amount to nearly 10 percent of their CD-ROM orders. Impact Media of Orem, Utah claims to be pumping out 2 million card discs per month and expects to gross $20 million this year. In two years, Impact has grown from 4 employees to 45.

Are there a lot of people out there producing shaped CDs? Well, an Internet search will get you a list of about 40 companies that offer custom-shaped CDs, but according to Greg Nickson, vice president of sales & marketing for Cutting Edge ShapeCD, that list will be misleading.

"It's a volatile market now with a lot of new players--especially the Asians--suddenly jumping in. But really only about 10 companies are actually doing the manufacturing work. The rest are just resellers, just brokers." The market is like a "storm-tossed sea" filled with fly-by-night startups and beset by patent disputes, Nickson says.

CARDS WIN--WEIRD CDS LOSE

Most market analysts, and even the vendors themselves, agree that the custom-cut odd-shaped CDs are likely to have a limited life span. Today, they are very popular because they are different. They stand out from the crowd. And that's great for marketing, because it makes the client's individual message standout. But what happens when everyone is using odd-shaped CDs? What happens when unique becomes old-hat?

"Custom cut is more of a niche thing," says Wolfgang Schlichting, senior research analyst, optical storage, for International Data Corporation of Framingham, Massachusetts. "Companies will not go overboard with custom shapes." In contrast, the business card-shaped CDs will have a more extended life span, he says. They are easier to pass from hand to hand than a big round CD. Because they have the look and feel of common cardboard business cards, they will easily fit into the corporate culture. While the odd-shaped CDs are a "novelty item," the card CDs are a "business tool," says Schlichting. Nevertheless, both types will enjoy continued success, at least for the short term, he predicts. "This is still an under-exploited part of the market," he says.

Even vendors and manufacturers of custom-cut CDs think the market for odd-shaped CDs has its limits. Greg Mince is co-owner of Custom Cutting Technologies (CCT), a service bureau based in Grapevine, Texas. CCT doesn't actually sell these CDs, it does the physical cutting for the CD replication and fulfillment firms that retail them. Mince says he and his partner started the company knowing full well that it would be a business with a limited life span. "We planned for this to be a fad that would fade out in a few years," says Mince. But he's beginning to think he under-estimated the market's longevity. He says his company is getting more and more work every day. He's also thinks he under-estimated end-user creativity. "Every day somebody comes up with a new creative way to use these things," Mince says. Consequently, he's not planning on retiring anytime soon.

Tony Van Veen, vice president of sales and marketing for Disc Makers, had a similar first reaction to custom-shaped CDs. "I thought it was going to be a fad. I thought it would be over by now." His company too has been surprised by the number of orders that have poured in. Like Mince, Van Veen too has changed his mind about the longevity of custom-shaped CDs. "I think they will become a permanent fixture on the landscape of the CD-ROM industry," he says.

Again, though, the consensus is that the card discs will outlast the more gimmicky "cut" CDs. "People are cautious of odd-shaped CDs," says Cedar Technologies' Jim Lewis. "The luster will wear off these CDs very quickly. Then people will go back to the business-card shaped CDs."

KEY TO THE WEB

The handful of megabytes on a card disc are like a teaser, Van Veenb says, the carrot on the stick that entices people and leads them to your Web site.
Boosters are calling shaped CDs a "revolution in marketing" and saying they can be used for new product promotion, new product sampling, special promotions (Christmas, etc.), event promotions (fund-raisers, grand openings, concerts), trade show give-aways, business recruitment, direct mail, information dissemination (product manuals, research reports), shareholder financial reports, training/instructional aids, TV spots, shareware, special editions, programs/souvenirs, multimedia brochures, virtual walkthroughs, catalogs/ inventories, invitations, testimonials, coupons, travelogues/tour guides, surveys, virtual art galleries. The possibilities seem endless.

Yet of all the possible applications, the one that has clearly caught on quickest is the use of the card-shaped discs for Web site promotion. The majority of card CDs now in existence hold glitzy multimedia presentations whose sole purpose is to drive customers to the sponsoring company's Web site.

"The Web is essential to marketing, but you can't hang it on clothes, trade it, hand it out at promotions, or take it with you on the plane" the way you can a card disc, says Peter Ashworth, co-CEO of AVOMEDIA Corporation. "Marketers have been searching for a convenient tool that is 'real world,' but that packs a multimedia punch and can drive Web traffic." He believes card discs like his AVO-Card are the ultimate solution. The awkward size of traditional CD-ROMs and accompanying jewel cases are liabilities that are unknown to card discs, says Ashworth. The card disc "gives CD-ROM another chance at mass acceptance as a marketing tool," he says.

"This is a marketing tool, and let's face it, a card's 40MB capacity isn't very much," says Disc Makers' Tony Van Veen. "To get the full force of marketing, you really need something with deeper content, such as the Web." The handful of megabytes on a card disc are like a teaser, he says, the carrot on the stick that entices people and leads them to your Web site.

Disc Makers has been selling its trademarked CardDiscs for about two years now. When asked what percentage of CardDiscs have been produced that incorporate a link to the sponsor's Web site, Van Veen answered: "Nearly 99 percent." Other card disc producer/ vendors report similar percentages.

"A custom-cut disc that is not Web-enabled is a dead end...and not very interesting," says market analyst Julie Schwerin of InfoTech (Woodstock, VT). While she's not ready to proclaim the card CD as Web marketing's killer app, she calls it a "terrific way to get people's attention." Ecommerce providers have been universally frustrated by their lack of a reliable way to get people to their sites. There's been a huge pent up demand for something to help with what Schwerin calls "limitations that prevent vendors from getting in touch with their markets." Card CDs help fill this marketing gap, she says. "Anything physical that you can put into someone's hands that will make them interact with you or your Web site--that's a great idea."

While driving viewers to Web sites is the primary goal of most card discs, some companies are going beyond this and getting creative. They are designing card/Web hybrid solutions that apply the best of both media. For example, Toronto-based Rompus Interactive Corp. sells a card disc it calls the i.d.rom. One of several options available with this card is a feature called "Tracking," which allows the sponsoring company to track every person who accesses its site using an i.d.rom card. Even more advanced tracking is available within the i.d.rom content. User behaviors can be monitored, recorded, and passed along for analysis. Within a catalog application, time spent shopping in each department or category could be measured. For example, User #358 spent 20 percent of her time in the housewares department, 30 percent in the clothing department, and 50 percent in the hardware department. Such information could help the sponsor gauge the effectiveness of its presentation and take measures to fine tune it.

Another i.d.rom feature called "One Card/Many Names" allows a large company to have cards that are personalized to each employee, while utilizing the same programming content. Every card would hold the same generalized company presentation, but also contain personal information by providing direct links to each employee's personal Web pages and email locations.

Another i.d.rom option is a fingerprinting technology called "CDKey" that offers security and exclusivity. With CDKey, companies can set aside secure areas of their Web sites that can be accessed only by i.d.rom "key holders." CDKey technology can be applied to exclusive launches, loyalty-based programs, and other applications where security is important.

BEYOND THE WEB

Business people are also getting creative about ways to use the attention-grabbing clout of these cards for purposes beyond ecommerce. Toronto-based Cutting Edge ShapeCD Inc. has been experimenting with something they call TicketCDs. Shaped like a backstage pass, a TicketCD is a combination admission ticket, playable CD, and fan memorabilia. Concert goers show up at the stadium entrance not with a cardboard ticket, but with a card-shaped CD. The ticket-taker at the door breaks off a plastic security tab (with engraved serial number) and hands the CD back to the concert-goer. When the concert-goer/fan gets home he puts the TicketCD in his CD-ROM drive and gets the band's tour schedule, interviews, video clips, alternate mix music tracks, merchan- dising offers and direct links to the sponsor's and band's Web sites. So far, the company hasn't gotten a huge response to this application because cost per disc is considerably higher than cost per cardboard, says company vice president of marketing Greg Nickson. But it's just a matter of time; costs will come down and sponsors will start to see the potential, he says. The card has had more popularity in Europe. For example, Pepsi recently used the TicketCD to promote all its music events in Spain. Also, American pop stars 'NSync used TicketCDs for some of their concerts in Germany.

Impact Media is experimenting with CDs shaped like books, something the company calls Book-It. The discs are meant to be bundled with books and magazines, and they usually echo the cover design of the publication they go with. Book-It CDs can contain multimedia that adds value to the printed product, or they can simply serve as an alternate form of advertising. "The potential for this is huge," says Impact Media president Robert Green. "What are people paying for a full page ad in Time magazine--$35,000? Think about how much more you'd get for your money with a Web-connected, multimedia-filled CD."

But where Impact Media has really hit paydirt is in the use of shaped CDs as sports trading cards. Impact is currently cranking out millions of CD cards for Upper Deck, one of the world's largest trading card companies. Upper Deck calls its CDs "PowerDeck trading cards." It has lines for NBA basketball, NFL football, NHL hockey, NASCAR auto racing, and, of course, Major League Baseball. Like traditional baseball trading cards, each PowerDeck CD card profiles a particular player/athlete, but the similarity ends there. PowerDeck cards give collectors the added pizazz of multimedia and contain stats, still pictures, and video clips. The Mark McGwire trading card, for example, holds a video clip of Mark hitting his record-breaking homerun. As part of a promotion, Upper Deck gave away over 100,000 CDs highlighting "A Season to Remember" at the fourth and final game of the 1999 World Series.

CARDS: A NEW NICHE FOR CD-R

CD-R discs for cutting to card shape must be produced using special "masking" so that the recordable area falls within a limited circle, away from the area of the disc that is to be cut.
Some people believe the market for card CDs is just emerging and won't really take off until the big-time replicators and media makers get into the molding game. Today, most card CDs are cut down from rounded media. This means the process is somewhat manual and rather custom, observes Technicolor's John Town.

Consequently, the cost that end-users are paying per disc for card CDs is significantly higher than the replication cost for a standard-sized round CD. After all, you have to add the extra cost of the cutting to the price. Card disc prices generally run from about $1.50 to $3 per disc. It's difficult to compare card discs prices from producer to producer because there's a lot more involved than just physical cutting. Multimedia production and design, label design, Web link programming, and packaging are all services that end-users will need to factor into their final costs.

But pricing offered by Disc Makers provides an interesting market perspective. The company's standard CardDisc service includes three-color printing on the disc and a plastic sleeve. (They are assuming here that all the presentation design, programming, and so forth has been done ahead of time, and that all they have to worry about is transferring the data.) Disc Makers will accept runs as small as 300. This costs $990, which translates to $3.30 per disc. In comparison, volume runs of 10,000 reduce the per disc price to 89 cents.

When the industry gets around to molding these cards into shape (rather than cutting them down), "prices will come plummeting down," says Town. And that's when these cards will really become commodity items.

A proliferation of card-shaped blank CD-Rs would also expand the market. Today, card CDs are rather a problem for replicators because "People always want either a hundred of these or a million," notes Town. This leaves a huge mid-range market gap for CD-R duplication service bureaus to fill.

When this market finally matures, end-users will be able to choose four distinct routes to card CDs--burn them yourself one at time on your home or office PC, buy duplication equipment and do about 50 at a time yourself, hire a duplication service bureau to do them for you, or go to replication. The last option, of course, will always yield the lowest price per disc.

So far, few if any U.S. media manufacturers offer blank card-shaped CD-Rs. The lion's share come from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Germany. Many of the shaped CD service bureaus/retailers are reselling blank CD-Rs from offshore suppliers as a sidelight to their replication/cutting business, but the discs are neither plentiful nor cheap. CD Digital Card, for example, offers two sizes of CD-R card discs: the 63x80mm card, which holds 50MB, and the 57x80mm, which holds 20MB. They come packaged 10, 25, and 50 per box. If you buy five to nine of the 20MB discs, they'll cost $7 a piece. If you order 100-199, they'll cost $2.60 each, and orders over 1,000 reduce the per-disc cost to $1.65. The company says the CD-R discs will work with "any standard CD writer," but recommends recording at 2X or 4X speed. In comparison, WEBcard Technologies is selling 48MB CD-Rs in 10-packs for $19.95. Leda Distribution of Santa Fe Springs, California, is a new entrant into the general CD-R media market, which has directed much of its efforts toward corralling the growing market for business-card CDs. Leda's discs come in silver or white and hold 21MB of data.

Blank CD-Rs are even available in the rectangular card shape. AVOMEDIA, for example, is selling rectangular CD-Rs that hold 12-25MB and are available in 50-packs. The company recommends a writing speed of 1X.

To get individuals up and running with card CD-Rs, Cutting Edge ShapeCD offers a CD-R Business Card Do-It-Yourself Kit. For $69.99, you get adhesive labels, sleeves, and label printing software. However, you only get 12 blank 50MB CD-R discs.

While card CD-Rs are cut down from larger CD-Rs, they are not cut down from standard CD-Rs, says Greg Nickson. "You can't simply cut down a standard CD-R disc because you'll ruin the cyanine recording layer," he says. Therefore, CD-R discs for cutting to card shape must be produced using special "masking" so that the recordable area falls within a limited circle, away from the area of the disc that is to be cut. Big media producers in Taiwan and Hong Kong are already geared up to produce these CD-R discs and that's where Nickson gets those that his company sells.

Apparently, not all the bugs have been worked out of CD-R media yet, and quality varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. According to Tony Van Veen at Disk Makers, "Card disc CD-Rs have a higher failure rate than 5-inch CD-Rs, with a reject rate of anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent, depending on the media and the duplicator used."

If you want to take the next step up in volume card CD production, you can now buy card CD duplication systems. Last November, Cedar Technologies (now a subsidiary of Rimage) announced the first "Desktop Business Card CD-R Production System," which it calls the BCD 1000. It has an 80-card capacity and sells for $8,185. Or if you already own one of Cedar's Desktop CD-R Publisher systems, you can upgrade to CD-R business card capability for a mere $495. Exton, Pennsylvania-based MediaFORM also provides card CD creation capabilities via its SmartDrive 2 in several of its automated CD duplication and production systems, including its flagship cdDirector. Microtech Systems of Belmont, California is another provider of duplication and production systems that allows for automated business-card CD creation in its products. The company's latest line of ImageAutomator 150 systems, designed for use in networked business and production environments, automates the production, alignment, and printing of card CDs.

Jim Lewis, formerly of Cedar and now a Rimage VP in charge of the company's Cedar division, says he thinks such duplication systems will do well in the marketplace because they give card CD producers an inexpensive way to burn card CDs that are customized to nearly every client. He notes that in marketing, it is often wiser to target individual customers like this than to take a shotgun approach, replicating millions of generic discs and hoping they eventually reach the right customer. Lewis says that though most CD-R blank media now comes from Taiwan, it won't be long until all the big media suppliers join in.

ONWARD TO DVD?

DVD card discs will be a godsend because they will solve one of card CDs' biggest current problems: insufficient capacity. When you cut the discs down so close to the inner hub, you don't have much storage space left. Since DVD storage has approximately six times the density of CD-ROM, vendors will be able to multiply their card disc capacities by six.
Several of the custom-cutting houses say they have experimented with DVD discs and report that there are no technical barriers to the production of custom-shaped DVD discs. Yet I couldn't find a single vendor that has actually commercially produced one yet. There just isn't any demand yet, say the vendors. "These CDs are usually promotional give-aways," says Custom Cutting's Greg Mince. "Most people aren't willing to go to the expense of using DVD for something they're going to give away."

OSTA's Ray Freeman believes that DVD card discs will be a godsend because they will solve one of card CDs' biggest current problems: insufficient capacity. When you cut the discs down so close to the inner hub, you don't have much storage space left. Most card CDs hold about 40MB. The small rectangular cards may hold as little as 10MB. Since DVD storage has approximately six times the density of CD-ROM, vendors will be able to multiply their card disc capacities by six.

"In the DVD era, we'll see a lot more of these because DVD will increase their capacity without increasing their size," says Freeman. People have an undeniable attraction toward small things, especially things that fit in the hand. He even suggests that these card-shaped discs could become a new standard for music. "With DVD and perhaps some compression, you could fit all the music you'd ever want on one of them," Freeman says.

Though CD Digital Card devotes a page on its Web site to DVD cards and has produced a prototype disc, it has not actually had any orders for one yet. "Nobody is using DVD because it's too expensive," says Mohab Sabry, the company's vice president of marketing. Nevertheless, "the market is progressing very fast," he says, and he's confident that DVD will be a major part of his business within a year. "People who want to use big video clips will need DVD," he says. He also believes the ability to play DVD card discs in DVD players will further expand the market. "Because these discs will play in DVD players, you can even get your marketing message out to people who don't own computers," Sabry notes.


In Square Circle

While most business card-shaped CDs look like a round disc with the top and bottom sliced off (leaving two rounded edges and two straight edges), lately, card CDs have cropped up that are perfectly rectangular. Some are a bit larger than a cardboard business card, while others are exactly the same size. These smaller cards suffer from a greatly reduced storage area (limited to a small circular area surrounding the center hole). To get around this capacity problem, most vendors use data compression. Most rectangular cards are not cut; they are injection-molded. There are apparently several proprietary methods involved in making these molded cards and a number of ongoing patent disputes.

One rectangular card is the AVO-Card, which is based on patent-pending technology developed by a Swiss firm called AVOMEDIA. The molded card holds up to 30MB.

Another vendor of rectangular business card-sized CDs is BCD Technologies of Gilbert, Arizona. BCD Cards hold from 18 to 40MB. Company president Dante Fierros says his cards are more reliable than some competing rectangular cards because they use a better technology to hold the disc in the CD-ROM drive tray. He explains that rectangular cards don't fit down into the tray's 80mm mini-ring the way curved and round discs do. They sit on top of the tray. This means that the cards need to use a method to keep them centered until the spindle comes up. According to Fierros, some of his competitors do this by incorporating four dot-like protrusions or "nibs" in the plastic that allow the card to make physical contact with the tray. But there just isn't enough surface making contact with this method, Fierros says, and consequently the cards are difficult to get spinning properly, and they tend to jump tracks. They also make a lot of noise. He says his company's card uses ridge-like protrusions that fit down into the tray's mini-ring and provide more surface area to make contact with the drive. He calls this technology "True Track."

But BCD is not the only company that uses ridges on rectangular cards. Cutting Edge ShapeCD, for example, makes rectangular cards with ridges that run down the entire width of the cards and appear to make even more surface contact than the BDC cards. This helps reduce noise and improve stability, says company VP of corporate sales and marketing Greg Nickson. He says rectangular cards can be made even better by changing the angle of the ridge so that it holds the card tighter in the ring. His company is working to refine the angle of the ridge it uses in its cards.


How Much Can a Card CD Hold?

The capacity of odd-shaped CDs varies widely according to how big and how close to round the discs are. Likewise, custom-cut, card-shaped CDs (the ones with two curved sides) also come in a wide variety of capacities, since they can be sliced down to just about any size. CD Digital Card, for example, offers business card-shaped CDs with the following sizes and capacities: 58x80mm (40MB), 60x80mm (50MB), 63x80mm (70MB), 66x80mm (85MB), 68x80mm (100MB), and 70x80mm (125MB). Since there is no standardization in this field yet, actual capacities per card vary widely from vendor to vendor.

Rectangular card-shaped CDs, since they have the smallest readable data circles, are the most limited in capacity. Many hold only 10MB; some hold 20, but you can't get much beyond that without using compression. Clearly card discs are severely limited in storage capacity with the average being about 50MB. Among end-users, this gives rise to the inevitable question--is this enough?

Robert Green, president of Impact Media, insists that 50MB is plenty of storage capacity, given the discs' primary intended use as a marketing/ promotions tool. "These are not meant to bury the user with information. They're meant for two-minute presentations," says Green. "People come to us with complex educational applications and massive product catalogs and I have to say to them: 'That's not what this is for.' "

On the other hand, if the discs held more data, wouldn't people find more applications for them? And couldn't those presentations get a lot more complex and impressive? Well, to provide a little perspective, here's a list of file types and how much of each could fit the capacity of a 50MB card CD (courtesy of Cutting Edge ShapedCD):

  • PDF in English: up to 1,500 pages
  • HTML with average graphics: 500-2,000 pages
  • MMD file: 1-2 hours
  • Flash animation: 4-6 hours
  • Video (320x240 pixel, 30 fps, MPEG): 5 minutes
  • CD-Audio: 4 minutes, 45 seconds
  • PowerPoint: 250 slides
  • MP3 music in stereo CD quality: 48 minutes
  • MP3 music in stereo FM quality: 96 minutes
  • MP3 music in mono voice quality: 400 minutes

Of course, when it comes to storage capacity, more is always better and the natural next step is to DVD card discs. With them, you'll be able to multiply all these numbers by six.


How Do They Work? Do They REally Work?

When they first see a square or star-shaped CD, people often ask questions like: How in the heck do these things work? Or: Do these things really work?

Odd-shaped cards are generally known as "custom-cut" CDs for good reason--most of them start life as normal round CDs that are then literally cut into shape. There are several methods for cutting (lasers, saws, die cutting, etc.), but most people use the sort of precision computer numerical control (CNC) cutting equipment that is used in the optical industry to cut plastic lenses for glasses.

Legend has it that the very first tool for cutting CDs was a common hacksaw. According to industry folklore, the first custom-cut CD was cut in 1995 by a frustrated German rock musician who was looking for a way to make his struggling band's audio CD stand out from the crowd.

Reading information from a cut down CD is the easy part; since CD data spirals out from the center (the opposite of LP records), shape only defines the amount of information available. Producers simply limit their data to a small circle close to the inner ring. The remaining outer area can be cut away, allowing the creation of any shape desired.

Shaped CDs, however, are not without their technical restrictions. Some of these problems are well-known and obvious. First of all, card discs and other custom cut CDs are meant to be used in tray-drive CD players. They won't work in so-called "feed" drives, which are slot drives that actually pull the disc into the slot. If you think about it, the reason these slot-loading drives don't work with cut CDs is obvious--they need an outer rim to grab on to, and if part of the rim has been cut away, then they have nothing to grab. This type of drive is common in car CD players and in certain new iMac models, but not elsewhere. If you have an application or environment that demands slot drives, all is not lost; there are adapters available for card discs (plastic rings that fit around them and give them an edge).

Custom-shaped audio CDs must have at least three sides that touch the outside of the drive's disc holder or tray. CD-ROMs must be symmetrical enough to stay balanced as they spin. Obviously, the closer a shape is to being round, the better it will balance. There is also a close correlation between spin rate and balance. Since CD-Audio drives spin at slower rates than CD-ROM drives, audio discs are better suited for extreme shapes than are CD-ROMs.

Unbalance can cause excessive vibration. Greg Nickson, vice president of corporate sales & marketing for Cutting Edge ShapeCD, says that he and a colleague recently tried to play a shamrock-shaped CD. His colleague had taken off his glasses and set them on the PC case. When they played the CD, it vibrated the computer so much that the glasses fell off the case.

Many people have reported that cut CDs are noisy when placed into CD drives. Nickson says some of them are so noisy that they "sound like an old Porsche." Doug McIntosh, PR director for WEBcard Technologies, insists that though there may be noise problems with some card CDs, there are none associated with his company's WEBcard. "Through cutting, the edges of the card are left with a flat edge. This is not a problem on the round portion of the card, but on the two flat sides, air dead-heads against the flat surface causing some air-flow disruption and, therefore, more vibration and noise. There can be no question that a non-round CD vibrates more than a normal CD and, therefore, puts more stress on the drive mechanisms, but how much can't be determined. We have been manufacturing, producing, testing, and researching WEBcards for over a year and have yet to have a CD-ROM drive fail."

Among shaped CDs, the regular business card CDs (the ones with two rounded sides and two flat sides) seem to be the least noisy and troublesome. That's because they fit down into the inner mini-ring of a drive tray, says Greg Mince. Even the odd-shaped cut CDs will work better if they fit in the inner tray, he says. "We generally try to design shapes to fit within the mini-disc ring, as the relative tip speed of the disc is lower than if it is based on a full-sized shape (picture passing someone by taking the inside lane on a curve). Shapes designed within the mini-disc ring are far more forgiving."

As early as 1996, Philips recognized some technical problems with shaped CDs and sent around a warning letter to CD licensees and others in the in-crowd. The letter listed a number of problems, such as "Sharp edges may hurt people's fingers." (It did not specifically address card discs, instead using the generic term "shaped CDs.") The letter included a reminder that: "Shaped CDs do not comply with the CD Standard Specifications and thus are not licensed under the present CD disc License Agreements. Therefore, the use of the CD logo is not permitted on Shaped CDs." Thus, the letter ends up sounding more like sour grapes from a jealous patent holder than a serious warning about technical problems.

Nevertheless, some of these old Philips accusations deserve attention, so we asked Greg Mince to respond to them. Here, then, are the Philips technical concerns, followed by Mince's responses.

  • Philips Concern #1: Many car stereo CD players, due to their special loading mechanisms, face problems with loading and unloading the disc. The disc might not be loaded at all, or if the disc is in the player, it might not be ejected. Such results might cause a costly repair at a service facility.
  • Mince Response: Shaped discs will not work in front-loading drives and will definitely damage the drive. Everyone is aware of this, and it's just common sense. Most manufacturers/vendors of shaped CDs put a warning label on their discs telling users not to try to load them into slot drives.
  • Philips Concern #2: Players using tray-loading drives also have great difficulty in loading the disc, since the shape of this type of disc makes it almost impossible to center the disc properly. This might lead to not playing or, even worse, damaging the player and, hence, costly repairs.
  • Mince Response: True and False. Loading the discs is not generally a problem. Almost all manufacturers of shaped discs will advocate having at least three points of contact. It is actually fairly difficult to misload a disc accidentally. Of course, nothing is foolproof since fools are so ingenious.
  • Philips Concern #3: Shaped discs also have very large unbalance figures. Although unbalance is currently not specified in the Red and Yellow Books, excessive wear of turntable motors can result and, hence, costly repairs.
  • Mince Response: True. We do not cut unbalanced shapes. Some other companies might. There are some shapes that just cannot be balanced; Christmas Tree, Raindrop, wine bottle. With the drives getting ever faster, these type shapes are doomed from the beginning. However, unbalance is relative to drive speed. Some unbalanced shapes will work in 4X readers, and even 8X readers, unless the shape is horribly out of balance. We try to balance shapes to within 0.003" of center. Out of balance shapes will damage a drive (I have personally ruined a 24X drive with an out-of-balance disc from overseas). Obviously, it is not in our interest to produce discs that are going to be a problem or damage drives. When our customers are looking at a custom shape, we have them send a request with a copy of what they want the face graphic to be. We develop a shape that will be balanced before the discs are produced. Then we have our customer modify the artwork to fit the shape. We also send out test cuts so that everyone is aware of what the final product will look like and how it will perform when it is produced.
  • Philips Concern #4: Since the shape of the disc is made after molding and finishing of the disc, the reflection layer at the outer edge of the disc is not being protected by the protective coating. Therefore, the reflection layer will possibly be exposed to air, which may be causing corrosion of the reflection layer, finally leading to bad read-out signals and playability problems.
  • Mince response: Yes, the metalized area is exposed after cutting. However, it is only a cross-sectional edge that is exposed. Due to this small area of exposure, it is our understanding that there is a finite amount of metal that will oxidize. The chances of oxidation into the discs more than a few thousandths of an inch is doubtful. Since almost all (99 percent) of the discs we see are promotional marketing pieces, long shelf life really doesn't matter. These are not software products that a user will reload year after year. Concerns about edge oxidation are like worrying whether the Land's End Spring 2000 catalog is printed on archive-quality, acid-free paper. Basically Philips' questions are an engineer's perspective on all the things wrong with a shaped CD. Honest truth, the best design for a CD is round--that's why they designed them that way in the beginning. A shaped CD is a marketing tool. It's fun. It's interesting. It's eye-catching.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

AVOMEDIA Corp.
950 South Coast Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714/825-1277; Fax 714/825-0700; info@avomedia.com; http://www.avomedia.com

BCD Technologies
1028 E. Jasper Drive, Gilbert, AZ 85296; 480/857-3723; Fax 480/857-3758; ascenso@azlink.com; http://www.bcdcard.com

CD Digital Card
1903 Wilson Avenue, Upland, CA 91784; 800/268-1256, 909/946-4002; Fax 561/365-8216; http://cddigitalcard.com

Rimage Corporation
Cedar Division, 7725 Washington Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55439; 800/445-8288; Fax 612/944-7808; chitko@cedar-tech.com; http://www.cedartechnologies.com

Custom Cutting Technologies, Inc.
804-B Port America, Grapevine, TX 76051; 817/410-1222; Fax 817/410-1228; info@customcut.net; http://www.customcut.net

Cutting Edge ShapeCD Inc.
7 Labatt Avenue, Suite 204, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 1Z1; 888/453-3116; Fax 416/640-2170; info@cdshapes.com; http://www.cdshapes.com

Disc Makers
7905 N. Route 130, Pennsauken, NJ 08110; 800/237-6666; Fax 856/661-3450; info@discmakers.com; http://www.discmakers.com

Impact Media
890 North Industrial Park Drive, Orem, UT 84057; 801/221-0067; Fax 801/222-0294; info@getimpactmedia.com; http://www.getimpactmedia.com

Leda Distribution Corporation
10811 Shoemaker Avenue, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; 562/941-5332; Fax 562/941-0409; info@leda-dist.com; http://www.leda-dist.com

MediaFORM
400 Eagleview Boulevard, Exton, PA 19341; 800/220-1215, 610/458-9200; Fax 610/458-9554; info@mediaform.com; http://www.mediaform.com

Microtech Systems
2 Davis Drive, Belmont, CA 94002-3002; 800/223-3693, 415/596-1900; Fax 415/596-1915; info@microtech.com; http://www.microtech.com

Rompus Interactive Corp./i.d.rom
190 Robert Speck Parkway, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L4Z 3K3; 877/374-3766; Fax 905/819-9105; info@rompus.com; http://www.idrom.com

WEBCard Technologies, Inc
. 380 State Place, Escondido, CA 92029; 800/ 698-9996; 760/740-9366; dlm@webcardinfo.com; http://www.webcardinfo.com


Mark Fritz (makfritz@aol.com), an EMedia contributing editor, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.

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