Scientists have taken the first rudimentary step toward developing a material that can do what octopuses and squid have mastered: change color on a whim. Researchers at the University of Houston and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign "developed a flexible pixellated sheet that can detect light falling upon it and change its pattern to match," writes Ed Yong at National Geographic. Their sheet can turn from black to white and then back to black, which the researchers admit is a far cry from the cephalopods' mad skills. "But it's a pretty good starting point," says one of the lead scientists.
The technique borrows the general principle of the animals' skin, which has three layers, explains the BBC: "The top layer contains the colors, the middle layer drives the color changes, and the lower layer senses the background patterns to be copied." Scientists used photosensors to detect changes of light, and dyes responded accordingly. The research is funded by the US Navy, but plenty of non-military applications are possible, including one suggested by an art professor in Chicago who studies fashion. Think the opposite of camouflage, with material that responds to your surroundings: "Maybe you want your clothing configured so that you stand out from the crowd," says the researcher. (Click to read about a deep-sea octopus then guards her eggs for four years.)