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An Invisibility Cloak For Distracting Gadgets

Tough to check your cellphone if you can’t see it.

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Imagine if instead of silencing your iPhone when you wanted some quiet time, you could simply make it disappear.

In the new paper "Changing the Appearance of Physical Interfaces Through Controlled Transparency"—spotted by Prosthetic Knowledge—TU Berlin researchers, in conjunction with Aarhus University, built solid objects that could go from opaque to clear instantly. One moment, they’d look like any white plastic product you know. Another, they’d be as clear as a window.

"I think one of the main ideas is that a lot of devices which currently surround us are always visible, even though we don’t need them," says TU Berlin researcher David Lindlbauer. "Think of for example your phone or Nest thermostat or Amazon Echo. We think that those devices should only become active and visible when we need them, not clutter our desks and homes."

So they constructed a series of demos by laser-cutting tiny shapes out of existing phase-changing materials—the sorts of materials that can already surround a windowed meeting room in frosted glass instantly—and then reassembling these panels into sculptural gadgets. Entire objects can go from opaque to clear, as if they’re wrapped in some sort of invisibility cloak, but researchers also played with the paradigm a bit, treating these tiny blocks and shapes as individual pixels, ticking away seconds like a clock on pyramids that slowly construct and deconstruct before your eyes.

"The interfaces we present in this work are hidden when not in use, and become active and communicate through their shape—not just with 2D displays," says Lindlbauer. "This makes them potentially more expressive and they do this without the need for any mechanical parts, which has advantages in terms of speed and shapes that can be displayed."

These disappearing objects have limitations. For one, they’re not very sturdy, since they’re constructed of thin plastic. Secondly, the team hasn’t demonstrated any extremely useful application of the technology yet. It’s easy to imagine desktop cubes that might light up when you had new emails or tweets—or a mute mode for your cubicle, where the displays just all go white on your command—but neither Lindlbauer nor the paper offer much in terms of practical application.

And maybe that’s all because of the third big limitation—that right now, these magical plastic shells can go clear on a whim, but if you were to build a computer or cellphone out of the stuff, you’d still see all of the circuits inside. In other words, we have something more akin to a disappearing iPhone case than a disappearing iPhone. "But there has been great progress also in the field of electronics to create transparent and very small transistor," says Lindlbauer. "So we hope this can be overcome in the future and build completely transparency-controlled interfaces."

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