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EXPLAINER: Real Life Invisibility Cloaking, How Does It Work? It’s Closer to Reality Than Ever Before

Whether you grew up with Schwarzenegger in Predator, the Cyborg Ninja in Metal Gear Solid, or Harry Potter in, uh, Harry Potter, pop culture is full of references to cloaking technology.

After all, everyone loves a good illusion (for more, check out my explainer on 3D billboards), but there’s an inherent power fantasy in being able to escape from any perilous situation by turning invisible.

Whether that’s a life-or-death situation, or simply needing to excuse yourself from the room after “that great joke you tell” absolutely bombs, there are plenty of reasons why the tech could be useful, or at least usable for comedy.

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What may surprise you is that it might be closer than ever to being a realistic thing to expect in our lifetime, and that there’s some pretty staggering science behind it.

Here’s how cloaking could become possible sooner than you think.

Hot sand

We’ve all seen movies or TV shows where a character hallucinates, often while out in the desert. These ‘mirages’ are optical illusions, leading wanderers to see things that aren’t really there.

As it happens, it is the heat of the desert sand that creates the effect. Essentially, the sand being very, very hot, and the air being significantly cooler gives the effect of light bending. Light rays are refracted, and that makes it look like there’s something there when there’s not.

That “tough to make out” shape is usually seen as a body of water, hence the idea of a mirage where there’s clean water in the desert. As it happens, however, it’s key to the idea of cloaking tech.

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From the desert to the lab

Much of this is replicated in man-made materials called metamaterials, a loose term defined by raw materials that can’t be found in nature.

For the purposes of cloaking, these metamaterials need to be built around tightly bonded nanostructures.

A study by Alieve et al managed to recreate this effect using carbon nanotube sheets that are tightly bonded and no more than a molecule thick and can absorb plenty of heat.

When heated, the heat was diffused to a nearby dish of water, and the subsequent effect was cloaking things behind the sheet. It’s a very specific setup, though, and while it proves it’s possible, it’s not the easiest thing to replicate on a portable level.

In essence, then, the challenge is developing something that helps us see what’s behind an object by bending light around it. Still, by building nanostructures specifically to refract light, light can theoretically bend around a subject to make it appear invisible to the naked eye. 

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Paper thin materials, like “Quantum Stealth” from Hyperstealth Biotechnology could be used to obscure just about anything if made large enough, and works for infrared, too.

This particular metamaterial is a whole host of layered lenticular lenses that you may use in regular glasses, or the 3D television glasses of the 2010s. By refracting light to create “dead spots”, there’s a lot of obfuscation going on in a slimline sheet of material.

It’s not just metamaterials making cloaking a reality, though — there’s been a shift of perspective in the use of lenses, too.

Hyperstealth Biotechnology

Here today, gone tomorrow

In 2018, metalenses saw a significant advancement that allowed the inclusion of titanium-based nanofins. These bend even more light than before, and when paired with metamaterials make for a much more convincing cloaking effect.

Rather than just focusing on certain light wavelengths, this breakthrough could help make it possible to tackle multiple wavelengths at once, essentially allowing for a much more complete invisibility effect.

The process is still being refined, but with continued research, we could be closer than ever to revolutionizing industries like gaming, movies, and, naturally, military applications, too.

Perhaps the most exciting development, and one that’s almost a decade old, is the Rochester Cloak, named after the University of Rochester that developed it.

By using multiple lenses (four, to be prices), it offers multidimensional cloaking from multiple angles. That means a pattern can be seen as if it’s going through a subject, with remarkable clarity, but perhaps more impressive is that the effect isn’t diminished by movement.

That means that while material can hide a stationary tank from an opposing army’s scout, this could, in theory, allow for the tank itself to remain hidden while moving – now there’s a terrifying thought.

We’re not there yet (which could be a good thing) because the lenses need to be so specifically placed, but it’s a fascinating concept all the same.



Lloyd Coombes is an established freelance writer specializing in consumer tech and fitness. He’s also Editor-in-Chief of GGRecon, and when he’s not writing, you’ll find him at the gym.

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