For design-conscious consumers, the color of a product can be just as important as its shape. Picture your ideal dining-room table: The height is just right, and it matches existing decor. The only problem is that it’s white, and you’d like it to be a deep plum (and next year, maybe marigold). Now, there’s a high-tech solution. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has created a new ink—dubbed “PhotoChromeleon”—to give you the freedom to color your objects as you please.
The reprogrammable ink allows users to change an item’s color when exposed to UV rays. In this way, it functions like nature’s chameleon; the inanimate objects adapt to their surrounding environs, less for camouflage and more for continuity in design. The color-changing ink is a scientific mix of cyan, magenta, and yellow photochromic dyes, which are combined into a single, sprayable material. Each dye interacts with different light wavelengths differently, so the scientists activated and deactivated different color channels in the dye in order to control how they reveal themselves once painted onto an object’s surface.
The MIT team has coated the ink on everything from cars to shoes to phone cases. In all, the customization process took between 15 and 40 minutes, depending on size. After the paint job is complete, the object is placed inside a UV-lit box. The light saturates the ink colors, and a projector is used to desaturate them. This is especially useful when redesigning an object to have a new pattern, like zebra print or cartoonish flames. The group of scientists also developed a user interface, which automatically processes designs and allows users to map them onto their chosen objects before committing to the new light-activated paint job.
“This special type of dye could enable a whole myriad of customization options that could improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce overall waste,” says Yuhua Jin, lead author on a new paper about the project. “Users could personalize their belongings and appearance on a daily basis, without the need to buy the same object multiple times in different colors and styles.” And if you decide you want to change your newly pink convertible back to black? PhotoChromeleon is a fully reversible ink. (To be clear, there are no plans to make this vibrant invention commercially available. But in theory, average consumers could use the ink at home with a simple projector.)
The lab has not yet been able to create every color in the spectrum; for instance, magenta and cyan are not represented. As the research continues, they plan to work on developing a full-fledged rainbow. But for now, inks like neon red and fluorescent kelly green provide a solid source of innovation and entertainment. “By giving users the autonomy to individualize their items, countless resources could be preserved, and the opportunities to creatively change your favorite possessions are boundless,” said MIT professor Stefanie Mueller.