Chameleons are impressive and all, but the most competent shapeshifters of the animal world are chromatophoric cephalopods. Able to change color and texture in high resolution in a fraction of a second by shrinking or increasing the size of pigment vesicles, they can appear to transform into rocks, vegetation, other creatures, or just plain dirt. No other animals on Earth can camouflage as well or as quickly.
Well, not yet, anyway—because we humans are in the game and, as usual, using technology to gain the upper hand. A team of American researchers has created new camouflage technology inspired by chromatophoric cephalopods and, while it’s not quite as good as the real thing yet, it’s off to a promising start:
The flexible skin of the device is composed of ultrathin layers, combining semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic color-changing materials in such a way to allow autonomous matching to background coloration …
While the most valuable applications would be for defense or industry, [University of Houston researcher Cunjiang] Yu said consumer applications such as toys and wearable electronics also could offer a market for such a technology.
You can probably expect to see (or not) real-world applications of this technology within 10 to 20 years. Until then, the cephalopods can show us how it’s done.