How Vantablack, the darkest material ever, can take gaming to a new level

Light-swallowing room promises Call of Duty fans the blackest of ops

the darkest room ever made

Have you ever gotten up to use the restroom during a movie screening, then struggled to find your seat when you re-enter the darkened theater? Now imagine how much tougher it would be if the theater wasn’t just dark, but literally the blackest black you’ve ever seen. Or not been able to see, in this case.

That’s the kind of disorienting effect that a major games developer recently turned to the U.K. company Surrey NanoSystems to create. And, boy, did Surrey NanoSystems deliver!

Whereas light normally bounces off surfaces, in the case of Vantablack it actually becomes trapped in it.

Surrey NanoSystems is the company behind Vantablack: a carbon nanotube material that’s capable of absorbing virtually all of the light that touches it. Whereas light normally bounces off surfaces, in the case of Vantablack it actually becomes trapped in it; continually deflected amongst a forest of vertical carbon nanotube until it finally surrenders and dissipates into heat. Approximately 99.965 percent of all visible light succumbs to this fate.

Since its invention in 2014, Vantablack has expanded beyond its original mission brief as a material for use in calibrating the cameras for satellites in orbit. Earlier this year, a version of the material called VBx2 was used to paint the outside of a large pavilion in South Korea for the Winter Olympics. This marked a major turning point.

“A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible because of the huge complexity in making some of these materials,” Ben Jensen, Chief Technology Officer at Surrey NanoSystems, told Digital Trends. “But VBx2 is a material specifically designed for wide area application.”

That’s where the games publisher, Activision, comes into play. Literally. For the launch of its latest Call of Duty game, Black Ops 4, Activision decided that it was going to set up a warehouse in London. The idea was to give gamers the chance to try out the title in a setting unlike any that they had experienced before — and Activision knew exactly which company to call in for help.

“We had never previously done a room that was coated internally with Vantablack,” Jensen continued. “It’s long been a question that people have asked on social media. What would it be like to be in a room covered in Vantablack? As a result, when Activision approached us about this, the idea was very attractive.”

As requested, the warehouse was equipped with an additional indoor structure, painted with VBx2. Jensen noted that the process of doing this was somewhat different to the typical experience of painting an indoor space. “When you spray the material, it doesn’t spray down like a paint; it sprays down like a nanostructured coral,” he said.

The effect, though, was jaw-dropping. “If you have a look at a conventional matte black paint that you might have at home, its reflectance is typically between 4-7 percent in the visible spectrum,” he said. “The very best ones would be 4, and your typical one is more likely to be 6-7 percent. While these normal paints may look matte from head-on, however, when you look at them from sharp angles, they’re very reflective. Our coatings don’t visually change their reflectance from any angle. What that means is that when you coat objects with them, the objects lose a sense of shape and dimensionality. Your sense of it changes completely. It appears flat and two-dimensional, which isn’t something we’ve grown up experiencing.”

black ops darkest house exterior
Activision

Transposed into a warehouse setting, with no lights other than the screen, he said the experience was akin to gaming in virtual reality. Players see only the large screen in front of them, floating in a blackness so intense that it’s not so much a color or shade as it is a hole in existence. Plus, without the benefit of wearing a headset, of course.

“It hadn’t been done before, so we didn’t know what the impact would be,” he explained. “We didn’t know if it would be a comfortable environment to play a game in, or whether it would prove too distracting. Based on all the feedback we’ve heard from people, they really enjoyed it. It’s totally different to anything they had experienced before.”

Players see only the large screen in front of them, floating in a blackness so intense that it’s not so much a color or shade as it is a hole in existence.

Don’t expect this to remain technology that’s trotted out only for one-off game launches, either. “[The success of this project had led] us to consider that there may well be applications in the wider gaming area,” Jensen said.

No, you probably won’t be getting an easy application VBx2 formula for painting your living room any time soon, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see more widespread examples of this technology, either.

A truly dark movie theater, for example? The next generation of ultra-immersive video arcades? Heck, a hotel room with real blackout blinds?  “[We’re interested in clever applications in different areas where it’s designed to deliver maximum impact for people to experience,” Jensen said. “I think this has a whole lot of potential.”

Movies & TV

Oscar-winning FX master explains why ‘First Man’ is a giant leap for filmmaking

Paul Lambert, the Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor on First Man, reveals the innovative techniques that blended old footage with modern movie magic to make the Apollo 11 mission to the moon resonate with audiences 50 years later.
Home Theater

QLED and OLED may have similar names, but they're totally different technologies

The names may look almost identical, but OLED and QLED are two entirely different beasts. In our QLED vs. OLED battle, we dissect the differences between these dueling TV technologies, and help determine which might be best for you.
Outdoors

Snooze soundly anywhere you lay your head with the best sleeping bags

A proper sleeping bag has the ability to make or break a camping or backpacking trip. Here are our picks for the best sleeping bags on the market to help you choose the correct bag for any type of outdoor adventure.
Product Review

'New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe' is 2D platforming wizardry

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is the latest Wii U game to come back from the dead on Switch. And wow, it’s much better than we remembered.
Emerging Tech

Want to know which drones are flying near you? There’s an app for that

Want to know what that mysterious drone buzzing over your head is up to? A new system developed by AirMap, Google Wing, and Kittyhawk.io could soon tell you -- via a map on your phone.
Emerging Tech

A Japanese hotel fires half its robot staff for being bad at their jobs

Japan’s oddball Henn na Hotel has fired half of its 243 robot staff. The reason? Because these labor-saving machines turned out to be causing way more problems than they were solving.
Emerging Tech

CERN plans to build a massive particle collider that dwarfs the LHC

CERN already has the world's biggest particle accelerator. Now it wants a bigger one. Meet the 9 billion euro Future Circular Collider that will allow physicists to extend their study of the universe and matter at the smallest level.
Emerging Tech

Forget fireworks. Japan will soon have artificial meteor showers on tap

Tokyo-based startup Astro Live Experiences is preparing to launch its first artificial meteor shower over Japan, serving as a showcase of its prowess in the space entertainment sector.
Cars

Robomart’s self-driving grocery store is like Amazon Go on wheels

Robomart's driverless vehicle is like an Amazon Go store on wheels, with sensors tracking what you grab from the shelves. If you don't want to shop online or visit the grocery store yourself, Robomart will bring the store to you.
Emerging Tech

Glowing space billboards could show ads in the night sky

Look up at the night sky in 2020 and you might see an ad for McDonald's floating among the stars. A Russian startup is working on a project that uses a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit to create glowing ads.
Emerging Tech

New brainwave reader tells teachers if students are concentrating

Massachusetts-based startup BrainCo has developed brainwave-reading headbands which can reportedly help reveal if students are concentrating in class. Here's how they're being used.
Emerging Tech

Fears about kids’ screen use may have been overblown, Oxford researchers find

Many people take it as gospel that digital technologies are harmful to young people’s mental health. But is this true? A recent study from the University of Oxford takes a closer look.
Emerging Tech

Meet Wiliot, a battery-less Bluetooth chip that pulls power from thin air

A tiny chip from a semiconductor company called Wiliot could harvest energy out of thin air, the company claims. No battery needed. The paper-thin device pulls power from ambient radio frequencies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell signals.
Emerging Tech

Hexbot is a modular robot arm that does everything from drawing to playing chess

Who wouldn’t want their own personal robot arm to do everything from laser engraving to competing against you in a game of chess? That's what Hexbot, a new modular robot, promises to deliver.