The prospect of a material that can change color yet is still flexible enough to wear as clothing is a perennial sci-fi dream—and now amazingly close to reality. This new electronic skin is just a few microns thick and yet manages to change color, acting as a credible digital display.

The new material, pictured above, has been created by a team from the University of Central Florida led by Professor Debashis Chanda. Conventional displays like LCDs and LEDs use a form of light source and then various filters to create the right color of light at each and every point across their surface. But the new material borrows from the animal world of chameleons and squid, creating a surface that instead reflects the correct colors of light to create an image—removing the need for a light source and hence the majority of the bulk, too. PhysOrg explains how it works:

A thin liquid crystal layer is sandwiched over a metallic nanostructure shaped like a microscopic egg carton that absorbs some light wavelengths and reflects others. The colors reflected can be controlled by the voltage applied to the liquid crystal layer. The interaction between liquid crystal molecules and plasmon waves on the nanostructured metallic surface played the key role in generating the polarization-independent, full-color tunable display.

The work, published in Nature Communications, has produced a display that is a few microns thick, yet has far larger color palette than similar attempts which have gone before it. Compared to other screen technologies, which can be millimeters thick, this is slinky, flexible enough to apply to plastics or synthetic fabrics to create a screen that could be crumpled, folded, or even worn.

“Your camouflage, your clothing, your fashion items - all of that could change,” explained Chanda in a press release. “Why would I need 50 shirts in my closet if I could change the color and pattern?” Indeed, the applications of such a material are practically limitless. But as ever, a research paper is one thing; it being used in practice is quite another. We’ll have to wait and see if Chandra’s material has what it takes.

[Nature Communications via PhysOrg]