MIT Scientists: Color-Changing Tech Could Save World From Garbage

What if you could change the color of your shirt or iPhone case on demand?

It’s a quick shot in the early in the original Total Recall: Just before Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives at Rekall, the receptionist touches a pen to her teal blue nails, instantly turning them bright red. It’s not something any of the characters remark upon, rather just a sign of how unbelievably far in the future the film’s 2084 setting.

Except such color-changing technology might be within our grasp within a matter of years, thanks to new work from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A team led by Stefanie Mueller at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab has created ColorFab, which makes it possible to change the color of 3D-printed objects with special inks that respond to exposure to ultraviolet light. “For example, you could recolor your smartphone case or earrings to match whatever outfit you’re wearing,” MIT announced in a news release, adding, “while the project is currently focused on plastics, the researchers say that eventually people could instantly change the color of their clothes or other items.”

As Mueller tells Inverse, the potential for tech like ColorFab is immense. It could change the entire way we consume.

“This sort of system could let people utilize a single article of clothing or a single accessory where previously they might have bought multiple of each,” she tells Inverse. “Instead of buying several shirts in different colors, you could buy a single one that you could change depending on the outfit.”

Mueller says previous systems developed to change the color of 3D-printed objects has been limited, generally only able to alter two-dimensional designs or single-color objects. As her team explains in a paper set to be presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in April, the mix of hardware and software behind ColorFab makes it possible to change the colors of more complex designs, using ultraviolet light to activate the desired colors and visible light to deactivate the others.

The implications of technology like ColorFab are both individual and global: Human overconsumption and waste have reached critical levels, creating nightmares like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. ColorFab would let people cut down on their possessions without having to live in a dour world where people’s options are artificially limited.


“Personally, I think it’d be great if I only had to have one pair of earrings or one bracelet, and that I could change its colors and patterns whenever I’m in the mood for a new fashion style,” says Mueller. She points out consumption is something we should all be looking to reduce regardless of whether something like ColorFab comes to the rescue.

“In general, it’d be great if technologists did more to develop products that would help reduce consumption,” she says. “But, at the very least, my hope is that technologies like this might inspire some people to think differently about what they buy and whether they actually need it.”

The tech takes about 23 minutes to change the colors of the material, so we’re still a little ways from the instant swaps depicted in Total Recall. But the researchers say speeding up the alteration time is just a matter of improving the existing technology, like using more powerful lights or making better inks.

“As far as we know this is the first user-friendly 3D-printing system with an end-to-end printing and recoloring process using light-adaptable dyes,” says Mueller. “The key innovation for us was a whole new way of developing light-adaptable (photochromic) dyes.”

Maybe the only remaining concern, as cynical as it might sound, is that any technology that lets consumers buy one product instead of several of the same thing is necessarily also one that means companies can only sell one thing instead of several. Will the retail industry really welcome ColorFab?

“Companies are ultimately interested in creating the best possible consumer experience,” Mueller argues in response to this question. “Imagine if a customer walks into a store and tries on a shirt he likes, but wishes it was in a different color. Instead of losing that customer, a technology like this would allow the retailer to deliver the exact product that the customer wants.”


Besides, even if not all stores see the potential of the technology, Mueller says the technology can reduce waste in ways that go beyond being able to change the color of a person’s stuff.

“For example, manufacturers and designers spend large amounts of time, energy and money having to re-print designs for products when they don’t come out right the first time,” she says. “This sort of system could help reduce the amount of waste from companies’ manufacturing processes.”

ColorFab has a ways to go before it becomes practical technology, but the potential is seriously intriguing. And there’s little question of just how much of a need there is for tech that can let us reimagine how we consume.

“With the amount of buying, consuming, and wasting that exists, we wanted to figure out a way to update materials in a more efficient way,” says Mueller. “People are consuming a lot more now than they did 20 years ago, and that’s creating a lot of waste. I’m hopeful that in the future this sort of system could help encourage consumers to be more mindful about their purchases and maybe buy just one of something instead of buying it in every single color!”

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