Friday, January 23, 2009

Can You See Me Now?

"I was working on the latest in invisible cloaking technology, but now I can't find where I put it."

What with the hullabaloo around here of the inauguration last week, this story nearly fell through the cracks. Technicians at Duke University announced that they have built a next generation cloaking device that could make objects appear to vanish. This new device improves enormously over previous light bending prototypes, and is a huge leap forward for the developing technology.

Cloaking devices work by bending electromagnetic waves around an object so it seems to disappear. When light hits the material the team created, the light gets redirected around an obstruction, and then released around the other side as if nothing ever happened. A spectator would see some distortion around whatever object is "cloaked" but it would be more like looking at a mirage than at a solid object.

A team at UC Berkeley developed a prototype last year that could hide objects from visible light. This new one is capable of deflecting nearly any wavelength of light instead of only the thin band we can see. The device tested last week, actually used microwaves redirected around an object, but can easily be refigured for visible light. There are many different possible applications for the new technology out side of the obvious "make things invisible" aspect. Putting this material around objects that usually disrupt cell phone calls could cut down on interference, or even allow signals to connect that couldn't have otherwise.

What's really cool about this new technology is how surprisingly easy it is to make. The trickiest part and what took the longest for the Duke team was developing the algorithms to tell the materials how to redirect the light. Once that was completed, the rest of the device only took nine days to actually build.

The whole research field has been moving forward very quickly. Metamaterials that could redirect light were only first isolated two years ago and already there's a working prototype. It's impossible to say for sure, but at the rate this field is moving forward, a Harry Potter style invisibility cloak may be available at your local Brookstone before you know it.

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