Future Tech: Invisibility cloak

Vanishing into space: When will it happen? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We've already examined such visionary subjects as the prospect of flying cars, robots in the home and the possibility of holodeck simulations. T3 now turns its attention to: Invisibility cloaks

What's the big idea?

In a world where everyone has something to hide, the ability to make something disappear completely is too good to pass up. Scientists are playing with ways of bending rays of light around an object using materials that change the speed and direction that light travels when it hits them. Watching closely are, of course, the military, who could use the materials in high-tech camouflage for soldiers or armoured vehicles.

What's happening right now?

Cloaking devices already exist. It's just that up until recently, they have only worked with objects about a tenth of the width of a human hair – something nobody could see anyway. But this year, research led by scientists at the University of Birmingham, made a paperclip vanish using a prism made from a naturally-occurring crystal called calcite. “The cloak is designed in such a way that it bends light around a bump on the surface without being scattered by it. So anything hidden underneath it cannot be seen,” explains lead researcher Dr Shuang Zhang.

What's in the way of the future?

The crystal cloak is currently about 20 times larger than the object it's concealing, although calcite crystals do exist that are big enough to hide a human body. “Metamaterials offer a much larger parameter range than crystals, which means they could be used to design a much more compact invisibility cloak relative to the size of the object being concealed,” Zhang says. Currently, however, most of the technology demonstrated has been with wavelengths of light outside the spectrum visible to humans.

When could we see it?

Metamaterials that work with visible light should appear within five years. Scaling it up for a high-tech game of hide-and-seek beneath haute Potteur will take decades.

Timeline: 2016

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered

- Future Tech: Clean energy for everyone

- Future Tech: Holographic simulations

- Future Tech: Robots entering the home

- Future Tech: Will we ever see driverless cars?

- Future Tech: Will we ever see a flying car?

- Future Tech: Food in a pill: One meal all in one?

- Future Tech: Smart pills: Brain power by tablets?