New Camouflage Material Is A Color-Change Artist

Researchers say they've produced octopus-inspired materials that can sense color and change accordingly. NPR's Scott Simon talks to John Rogers, professor of engineering at the University of Illinois.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For years, scientists have been trying to replicate what octopus and squid do; change color to blend in to their surroundings. Now researchers say that they've produced materials that can sense color and change accordingly. So does this mean that shirts will blend into your sofa, or submarines can look like coral?

John Rogers is a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. And he's one of the researchers who headed a team that's developed this camouflage technology. He joins us now from Evanston, Illinois. Thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Congratulations and how does it work?

ROGERS: It's a multi-functional, multi-layered type of material that changes colors in a pattern that reflects the illumination that's incident on it, either from its front side or its back side.

SIMON: So what have you done with it so far?

ROGERS: Well, we've demonstrated that you can actually put together all the pieces and make this kind of system in a thin, lightweight, flexible form. You know, the goal was really to take a deep look at how a cephalopod's skin works - it's a spectacular, you know, engineered system that evolution has come up with - and try to sort of abstract some of the key concepts from the study of the biology and then, implement them, you know, in a man-made system.

SIMON: I gather this is a study for the Navy, right?

ROGERS: It's a study funded by the Navy. I think there are clear potential militarily implications of this kind of technology out into the future, but I think they're interested mostly, you know, at the basic scientific aspects of how one thinks about doing this sort of bio-inspired engineering.

SIMON: I mean, we - I guess we're being cheap and obvious when I mentioned, you know, maybe you could wear shirt that blends in to the sofa. But while we're on the subject, could you devise a shirt that blends in to the sofa on which you're sitting?

ROGERS: (Laughter). Well, it turns out that there are folks out there who are interested in exactly that type of thing. So again, you know, my own motivation's more from an academic, basic scientific standpoint and blending, you know, biology concepts with engineering capabilities. But, we have had conversations with faculty, for example, at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago who are interested in new technologies and how they could be used to advantage in enabling new concepts in fashion and design. And the other class of folks that have, you know, reached out and we've had discussions with are people in our school of architecture. So you can imagine interior design; you have thin sheets. You can put them on the walls or on different, you know, surfaces in an interior living space and make those adaptive to, you know, the ambient lighting conditions in an interesting way that, you know, opens up new possibilities in interior design as well.

SIMON: John Rogers is a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois. Thanks very much for being with us.

ROGERS: Yeah. Thanks again for having me.

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