The invisibility opportunity

By Sheila Moorcroft

As we become ever more visible (whether by choice in return for services and convenience or unbeknown as a result of spying or criminal activity as well as perfectly legitimate cookies), we are already seeing a growing investment in invisibility–from the very high tech invisibility cloak to the low tech return to typewriters. But the meta-materials of invisibility research may also provide new solutions in medicine, weapons and buildings. Invisibility is a growing opportunity.

What is changing?

Visibility is rising. The recent events surrounding Edward Snowden and the revelations of the extent of the NSA’s spying activities have raised new concerns about and greater awareness of levels of visibility and the ability of governments – and commercial organisations – to ‘spy’ on us. Our growing reliance on smart phones and apps, as well as all the services and convenience they provide plus the growing sophistication of cookies, big data collection and analysis are making us ever more visible. As a result we are seeing the rise of interest in invisibility as an opportunity.

New products are helping consumers be more invisible. The Off Pocket a water-resistant metal-fabric pouch to block all wireless signals including GPS so that your smart phone no longer displays your movements. The same company has also produced anti-surveillance clothing – as much to spark a debate as provide invisibility. Burner, an app on iOS and Android, creates one use mobile phone numbers which you can use and then dispose of; similar to Hushed. These solutions provide anonymity rather than pure invisibility, but nonetheless contribute to the space.

Research into invisibility cloaks has developed mechanisms for redirecting light and sound so that objects such as planes or factories can become ‘invisible’. One of the most recent developments has demonstrated the capability to make ‘heat’ disappear, and could be used in developing electronic components.

A reverse approach is also reportedly emerging among Russian security services: the return of the typewriter and paper. The Federal Guard Service has apparently spent nearly $15,000 on electric typewriters – paper is seen as less visible and open to spying than the internet or smart phones.

Why is this important?

Any technologies which enable consumers to be invisible will inevitably help criminals who will also invest in developing the capabilities further. These devices as well as the very high tech equipment and low tech approaches to invisibility will require a range of old as well as new skills and training for police and security forces.

For some, invisibility will be the new luxury – no signal, no trackability, the ultimate privacy and disconnect. Hotels and resorts catering to the mega rich may increasingly need to have invisibility as the default, with communication spots where needed.

But ‘invisibility’ also has major applications elsewhere using the meta-materials such as those which enable invisibility cloaks. Focusing sound to enable tumour destruction but reduced tissue damage in the process; but also sound bullets for military targets. Meta-materials which enable negative refraction may enable light harvesting, while others enable photon manipulations for computing.

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