“What we are designing is a passive system that interacts with the ambient light, channels the right amount to the right direction so you can camouflage yourself,” Baraniuk said. “It’s not like any kind of imaging device that has ever been designed.”
By harnessing the light-collecting and color-shifting abilities of the undersea animals, Baraniuk and other bioengineers dream of building a thin electronic “skin” that could turn an entire room into a camera, transmitting images of what’s happening there without people knowing it. That might seem a bit creepy, but this technology could also be used to design new kinds of three-dimensional televisions, holographic games and medical imaging devices.
John Rogers, a professor of materials science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is also working on this idea. “Just imagine surfaces that would be wallpapered that turn into a camera,” he said.
The initial prototype would be a black-and-white version that can match its surroundings, Rogers said. Flexible camouflage panels would contain sacs of colored dyes that contract or expand, just like the skin of the squid and cuttlefish.
Clothes that change color
Experts say lots of engineering problems must be solved before we will be able to buy clothing that changes color to match its background. That’s because there are still a lot of things scientists don’t understand about how cuttlefish skin changes color.
That change is the result of a cascade of events influenced by chemical and physical signals from its surroundings, the animal’s own chemical hormones and electrical impulses from the brain, according to Andrea Toa, an assistant professor of nano-engineering at the University of California at San Diego. She says that fabricating a similar cascade won’t be easy.
“Squid have very complex systems,” said Toa, who is not involved in the Office of Naval Research project. “In a camouflage device, you have man-made elements which boil down to an electrical circuit.”
However, researchers including Baraniuk and Rogers point to other advanced devices as evidence that nature and engineering can work together. Scientists in Japan are building “krill-eye,” a wide-angle lens that collects light the way the compound eye of a shrimp does. An Oregon lab is designing “neuromorphic” computer chips that mimic the way the brain’s neurons work — sending messages in spikes of energy instead of a continuous current.
“Whatever we learn from this,” Baraniuk said, “will be applicable way beyond mimicking camouflage.”
Niiler writes about science and technology, and lives in Chevy Chase.