We Talk to a Scientist Who Built an Invisibility Cloak for 3D Objects

Unfortunately, we're still a ways off from Harry Potter-level tech.

Berkeley Lab

Left to right: Yuan Wang, Zi Jing Wong and Xiang Zhang have built an invisibility cloak for tiny things.

Roy Kaltschmidt

A team of scientists at UC Berkeley have achieved a world-first: a thin “skin” cloak that conceals the shape of the 3D object underneath.

The invention, as it exists today, is really tiny. It hides an object about the size of three cells, according to a news release from the Berkeley Lab. Although it is small, this device represents a big leap in cloaking technology.

“Most of the previous cloaks actually are significantly larger than the object they hide,” study co-author Zi Jing Wong tells Inverse. It could be 10 times or even 100 times larger.”

This new nanotech surface is, by contrast, just 80 nanometers (billionths of meters) thick. At least theoretically, it could be scaled up to hide much bigger objects.

“Our ultra-thin cloak now looks like a coat. It is easy to design and implement, and is potentially scalable for hiding macroscopic objects,” says co-author Xiang Zhang.

It’s made up of interlinked gold nanoantenna. This is what it looks like in action:

What you’re looking at is a view through a microscope of an object with bumps and ridges sitting underneath the invisibility blanket. The researchers turn the cloak on and then off again by changing the polarization of the nanoantenna.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like this, yet:

Harry Potter's invisibility cloak still lives in the realm of magic.

Wong explains that this experiment is a proof of concept, and there are many technological hurdles head before invisibility capes are a thing.

For one, the nano-tech only works with red light at the moment. “Ideally if we really want to cheat our eye, then we need to cloak not only the red color but also the green color and the blue color,” he says.

There’s theoretically no limit to how big this could get, but the current technology for fabricating nano-tech on a large scale is limited, Wong says.

Obviously, the military could think of ways to use something like this. A bomber plane, for example, could be sent into enemy territory in disguise, says Wong. “Perhaps we can make it look like a bird or a smaller airplane.”

Applications could be vainer, too — one day we may apply cloaking masks to our faces. “Maybe they can hide the pimples, the wrinkles, and things like that.”

There are still many technological hurdles ahead, but Wong says he thinks we’ll get there. “Perhaps in another 10 years or so we can come up with a very low-cost way to make this thing.”