Octopuses and other cephalopods are masters of disguise -- their prey often doesn't realize the danger until it's too late. It only makes sense to model active camouflage after that behavior, then, and a team at the University of Illinois has managed just that. Their octopus-like material uses layers of photosensors, actuators and temperature-sensitive pigment to detect ambient light and change colors in response. Individual points on the unversity's test skin can turn from black to transparent within a second or two, letting it quickly blend into its surroundings -- or purposefully stand out, as you see above. The technology will ideally allow for many colors in the future, although that's not an immediate priority.
The US Navy is backing the project, and it's easy to see the potential benefits for the fleet: warships could fade into the background during combat, or make themselves easy to spot when allies are nearby. There are civilian uses, too. You could have clothing or wallpaper that changes along with your environment, or simply to suit your mood. Researchers are quick to stress that the nature-inspired surface is a long way from reaching products, but it's an important first step toward making the concept a practical reality.
[Image credit: Cunjiang Yu, University of Illinois]