Octopuses, their camouflage techniques inspired this cool new morphing material

If James Bond were an animal, doubtless he’d be an octopus. Sure, these tentacled sea dwellers may not seem like the most suave of animals, but they certainly could serve as super spies. You see (or don’t see, in this case), a certain species of this cephalopod known as the mimic octopus does just that — it mimics things better than just about any other creature on Earth. Capable of changing colors and shapes, the octopus is apparently able to bear a striking resemblance to anything from a lion fish to a shrimp to an anemone. And now, humans are trying to create camouflage based on this remarkable animal.

A team of materials scientists and engineers at Cornell University, along with octopus expert Roger Hanlon from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, have cracked the code of the mimic octopus with rubber and mesh. As per the results of their study published in Science, the team managed to create a “thin membrane that contorts into complex 3-D shapes — much like the shape-shifting skin of an octopus,” the Washington Post reports.

In just seconds, this membrane can mimic a potted plant, or a pile of stones. And when applied ore broadly, this invention could have major implications, from military camo to adaptable smart devices.

“For a few decades, scientists and engineers have been trying to control the shape of soft, stretchable materials,” said James Pikul, lead author of the paper, and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. To solve this longstanding problem, Pikul and the team cut a series of concentric rings into silicon rubber and mesh. This way, when the rubber was inflated, the membrane contorted based on the shape of the cuts.

“The width of the concentric rings determine how much radial stretch there is in the membrane,” Pikul told the Post. “This stretch is directly related to the slope of the inflated shape, so if you know your final shape, you can calculate the slope and match the ring patterns to that slope.”

While the material isn’t being widely used quite yet, Pikul says that he can imagine many different uses. “One of the things that we’re really interested is this idea of vanishing interfaces,” he told CBC News. If you think about your car’s dashboard, he noted, “It’s flat, it almost looks like leather and there’s not much there. If you had the material that we engineered, you could inflate it, and then coming out from that leather could be a joystick that you use to drive your car, or it could be a display. You’d have this cool interface — and when you don’t need it anymore, it disappears and looks like a dashboard again.”

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