Chameleon T-Shirts With Electrochromic Polymers

Chameleon t-shirts that can mimic a background, or replay any patterns at will? Sounds like the mimetic polycarbon suit from William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer:

The Panther Modern leader, who introduced himself as Lupus Yonderboy, wore a polycarbon suit with a recording feature that allowed him to replay backgrounds at will.
(Read more about the polycarbon suit)

A real-life polycarbon suit is the dream of Greg Sotzing of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He has developed threads of electrochromic polymers which change colour in response to an applied electric field.

Here's how it works:

A mixture of differently coloured threads would be knitted or woven into a T-shirt or blanket, along with a small number of thin metal wires connected to a battery pack and a microcontroller. The crisscrossing wires effectively divide the shirt into pixels.

Each coloured thread changes its state at different voltages, so by varying the voltage between different pairs of wires you can change the colour of each pixel. By connecting the controller to a camera, it could even be made to switch the pixels to display a pattern matching your surroundings.

Electrochromic polymers are coloured because the electrons in their chemical bonds can absorb light across a range of visible wavelengths. When a voltage is applied it changes the energy levels of these electrons, causing them to absorb light of a different wavelength, and changing the material's colour. When the voltage is reversed, the electrons return to their usual energies and the original colour returns.
(From press release)

At the present time, Sotzing and his team are only making fibers that change from orange to blue, and from red to blue; they hope to create threads that change from red, blue and green to white. So, the t-shirt (or suit) is still a ways off.

This story comes from NewScientist print edition; this article is not available online without paying a fee. On the other hand, you can read these super-suit articles for free: Flexible armor suits for skiers or the cinematic version of PKD's scramble suit. Be sure to check out Gibson's science-fictional polycarbon suit. Thanks to for writing in with this story tip; does anyone recall seeing this in Samuel Delany's novel Dhalgren?

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/10/2006)

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