MIT's crazy ink could make your shoes change color like a chameleon

And it's not just shoes. Imagine being able to transform your wardrobe in an instant.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
2 min read

Exposed to UV light, a toy chameleon on a rotating platform becomes a real chameleon. 


In the mood to wear multicolored, patterned shoes but only own boring white ones? A special ink out of MIT lets objects change color when exposed to certain kinds of light. The best part? The color swap can easily be reversed, making for endless customization -- and, presumably, less waste. 

"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," Yuhua Jin, a postdoc from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and lead author on a paper about the "PhotoChromeleon" project, said in a statement.

To make the ink, the MIT team dissolved photosensitive cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes into a transparent lacquer. Shining a UV light on the dyes brings them to full saturation. The researchers previewed the desired color and patterns on 3D computer models of objects they wanted to transform, then placed the real objects into a box with a projector and lights that can activate and deactivate different colors via a computer program. Voila! Custom, erasable, colored objects. 

Lather, rinse, change the color of your outfit for the third time in an hour. Great for the indecisive and the environmentally conscious. 

Getting tired of the pattern on your phone case?

GIF by Leslie Katz/CNET

PhotoChromeleon builds on the team's previous system, "ColorMod," a collaboration with Ford Motor that uses a 3D printer to fabricate items that can change their hues. The CSAIL team tested the newer system on a car model, a phone case, a shoe, and, appropriately, a little toy chameleon, and said the process took from 15 to 40 minutes, depending on the size and shape of the object. All patterns had high resolutions.

The team will present its research at the upcoming User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in New Orleans. Next, the team plans to work with material science researchers to improve the photochromic dyes and extend the color-changing fabrication methods to 3D printing. 

I don't care how they get there. Just give me a coat that changes colors on a whim.  

Originally published Sept. 10.