The Future of Technology: Nature

Today is an age of personal electronics. It is hard to find someone who doesn’t walk around with a cellphone, laptop, kindle, or iPod. We are so connected and dependent on our technology that it can be easy to forget the natural world around us. But even creatures as small and fragile as a butterfly can have a huge impact on technology as we know it.

Screening for the Best

When people look at the screen of their electronic reader or their phone, they are looking at the images and are not thinking of the screen itself. Yet the technology behind the screen itself is what allows people to check their email, watch movies, or read books on electronic devices. Because of how widespread the use of this technology is, a lot of research is being done to find the best color display.

E-ink vs. LCD screens in the sunlight, LPerez/Flickr Creative Commons

LCD screens, liquid crystal displays used in Apple products, were developed in the 1970s and are still used because it is hard to find an alternative that is better in any way besides for efficiency and glare. While the quality of the color and full video on LCD screens is phenomenal, they use a lot of energy and are hard to read in direct sunlight, causing a lot of eyestrain.

An alternative to the LCD screen (and found in most electronic readers) is E Ink. E Ink, which utilizes electrophoretic technology, reflects ambient light and so it does not need power while an image is constant and has high readability in sunlight. In fact, it reports that it is 60% more energetically efficient than LCD screens. However, the screen cannot switch images fast enough or video and while there is no glare from the sun, the screen is not very bright and the screen is slow to refresh. Clearly, the perfect color screen has not been found yet.

The World in Color

Blue Morpho Butterfly, Les/Eco Heathen/Flickr Creative Commons

Yet nature is full of intense and bright colors. For example the Blue Morpho Butterfly is a beautiful iridescent blue and it does not need the energy a LCD screen uses. Qualcomm developed a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) they call Marisol that they have just released as the screen of an e-reader. Using the morpho butterfly as inspiration, the Marisol display uses mirrors to enhance ambient light just as butterflies do. Similarly to E Ink, these displays are environmentally friendly, have high readability in the sunlight and use basically no energy when displaying a stationary image. However, unlike E Ink, Marisol displays can change in microseconds allowing them to screen video. All this from a butterfly.

Though the Marisol display is far from perfect, it is wonderful to see a business so completely embrace the concept of biomimicry in their work as can be seen in Qualcomm’s video below. It is businesses like Qualcomm (and Sharklet Technologies from last week) that make me excited for the future of technology and all that can be done with nature’s help and inspiration.

Nature never stops inspiring and even more display technologies are being inspired by the world around us. Chameleons and squid change the color of their skin to countless different shades and researchers, such as Jason Heikenfeld at the University of Cincinnati, have taken this as an opportunity to create yet another display screen—this time one that can display a wider variety of colors than the Marisol display without causing the technology to get too expensive.

Veiled Chameleon, Walknboston/Flickr Creative Commons

The Novel Devices Laboratory and other laboratories have been working on electrofluidic technology where nature-inspired pigments are electronically pulled throughout the device. This technology, being developed by Gamma-Dynamics, is another exciting alternative to the color screens that are currently commercially available. As the developer Professor Heikenfeld says, “If you compare this technology to what’s been developed previously, there’s no comparison. We’re ahead by a wide margin in critical categories such as brightness, color saturation and video speed.”

Although all of these technologies have yet to be perfected, it is exciting to watch them develop and advance knowing they could not have gotten where they are without nature. As you read this and look at your computer screen remember the butterfly, the chameleon, and the squid—nature has mastered color and, with nature’s help, our biomimetic technology will as well.

7 thoughts on “The Future of Technology: Nature

  1. Linda Loewenstein

    One of the first employees at Qualcomm, years ago, was our friend Butch Weaver. He holds 50 of the original patents. Next time you’re in Boulder, Aliza, I’ll introduce you to him. Great work on the blog! It’s been fascinating to read.

  2. Sara

    It’s an amazing experience going out to nature and seeing how vibrant colors really are. I was really stuck by this when I worked on the farm in California. Those avocado groves are brighter than anything I’ve seen yet on TV! Great Job!!!

  3. Maya

    I am so sad to see this blog go! Its one of my personal favorites. I can’t believe such brightness and color exists in nature on its own! How fascinating. And to use the butterfly as technological inspiration? Simply innovative. Thank you for posting all semester, Aliza. You are a rock star blogster and a best friend to the environment. And to me. Thanks for your inspiring and educational words!

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