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Polymer 'Muscle' Changes How we Look at Color 74

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the what-color-can-you-flex dept.
New Scientist is reporting that in the not-so-distant future computer monitors, and televisions may utilize a color changing polymer that responds to a current instead of existing techniques. From the article: "Aschwanden and colleagues built arrays of 10 pixels, each 80 micrometers across. The pixels consist of a piece of polymer covered with ridges tipped with gold. When white light is shone at the polymer from one side it reflects out of the screen and is also split into different wavelengths by this 'diffraction grating'. However, a slit above the polymer ensures that only one wavelength of light escapes, giving the pixel its color. The pieces of polymer also contract in response to current, like simple muscles. As they do so, the fan of light-waves is moved, changing the color that is fed through the slits above and out of the screen. Cutting the current causes the muscle to return to its original state."
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Polymer 'Muscle' Changes How we Look at Color

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  • by chriss (26574) * <chriss@memomo.net> on Saturday August 19, 2006 @07:09PM (#15942136) Homepage

    I like the idea of reducing our current RGB model to a "true pixel" technology, because it will make displays smaller, sharper and more. But as far as I understand our vision system is itself based on a sort of RGB sensor and the human eye is not really capable of seeing e.g. orange, which is why the whole RGB (and CMY) display technology works in the first place. There are some high range displays (at least in research facilities) giving you a larger dynamic per color than the 256 scales of traditional 24 bit images, so the lack of "true colors" mentioned in the article might be solved by conventional technology.

    But what about the use for data transfer over fiber? One of the nice things about fiber is that you can send several "colors" in parallel which will not disturb each other, something impossible with copper. Up till now they use laser diodes with a fixed wavelength, so the number of diodes determines how many parallel signals you can send.

    Now there is a technology that can create any wavelength. Combined with matching optics, could one not use one of those polymer displays to create multiple wavelength signals and send them through one fiber, in theory allowing an indefinite number of signals? Still limited by the number of pixels on the display and the accuracy of the sensors on the other side, but much easier than to arrange several thousand laser diodes.

    [Just speculating, no real clue about optics.]

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 19, 2006 @07:20PM (#15942160)
      One of the nice things about fiber is that you can send several "colors" in parallel which will not disturb each other, something impossible with copper.


      This is not true.


      Different colours are simply different frequencies of light. You can also send different streams of data on different carrier frequencies over a copper transmission line.


      This is used all the time, eg. in cable television: you get several television signals in parallel through a single coaxial cable. This is possible because each channel has it's own carrier frequency.


      It however is true that the bandwidth of an optical fibre (of course at the frequencies used there) is much much larger.

      • by Deef (162646)
        Hmm. You are right, but not in the way you think you are. :-) You are conflating the frequency of the carrier particle itself with the frequency of the (much, much, MUCH slower) carrier wave that is transmitted using large numbers of carrier particles. From a physics point of view, these are two totally different things, although from an information-theory point of view they behave in a similar manner.

        Consider this: You can do the same kind of frequency multiplexing that you described for copper cables for
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Now there is a technology that can create any wavelength. Combined with matching optics, could one not use one of those polymer displays to create multiple wavelength signals and send them through one fiber, in theory allowing an indefinite number of signals? Still limited by the number of pixels on the display and the accuracy of the sensors on the other side, but much easier than to arrange several thousand laser diodes.

      Maybe, but the problem in high-speed fibre optics isn't creating all the different wav

      • by chriss (26574) *

        In order to get to a useful system, each of these 'colours' have to be modulated, ie. switched on and off according to the bits you want to transfer. So you need to be able to switch on and off at a rate of at least a few gigahertz.

        Moving polymer molecules are a bit similar to current LCD technology, in which liquid crystal molecules also physically move. Such processes are inherently slow.

        Hm, that basically kills the idea. Luckily I had not already applied for a patent. Thanks for the insight, you sav

      • if you can flick a single wavelength a million of times a second

        or 10,000 wavelengths 1,000 times a second.. what has higher bandwidth?
        • 10000*1000 > 1000000 (by a factor of 10)

          But the question is really whether your data can be decorrelated and correlated (or scattered across the wavelengths and gathered up on the receive side) across that many channels.

          The important question in packet-based networking is when the last bit of a packet arrives, not when the first one does.

          Let's make it 10 000 channels of 1000 modulations per second versus one single channel of 10 000 000 modulations per second, so the aggregate rate for the serial versus
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by caramelcarrot (778148)
      What this would allow is to create pixels that have colours closer to the optimal recieving wavelength of the receptors on our retina. This would allow a screen to recreate the full human gamut (assuming you could also take photos in that system too...) There is no point in transmitting the entire spectrum shape using this, since the eye can only percieve at 3 bases.
    • Digital x Analogic (Score:3, Interesting)

      by marcosdumay (620877)

      At the time you put it on a real product, it makes no difference (maybe outside the price) if you have an array of leds or a device capable of emiting any frequency. You receiver won't be able to read on a perfectly sharp spectrum, and light will scatter on the fiber, adding noise to the frequencies close to the ones you are using.

      At nature, you never have infinite precision, so anything you do can be discretized.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by QuantumFTL (197300) *
      But what about the use for data transfer over fiber? One of the nice things about fiber is that you can send several "colors" in parallel which will not disturb each other, something impossible with copper. Up till now they use laser diodes with a fixed wavelength, so the number of diodes determines how many parallel signals you can send. Now there is a technology that can create any wavelength.

      We've had this for some time now. It's known as a tunable laser [wikipedia.org].
    • by vidnet (580068) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @08:20PM (#15942310) Homepage
      But as far as I understand our vision system is itself based on a sort of RGB sensor and the human eye is not really capable of seeing e.g. orange, which is why the whole RGB (and CMY) display technology works in the first place.

      Yep. Red, green and blue are not divinely chosen as primary colors, they're based the peak sensitivities of human eyes. Human color vision is based on three different types of light sensitive cells, each with overlapping bell curves of sensitivity. A color within the human range will excite these different kinds of cells to different degrees. Yellow light will trigger red-sensitive and green-sensitive cells, basically decomposing the color. However, red light and green light will obviously also trigger the red-sensitive and green-sensitive cells, and the brain is incapable of telling the difference (other animals with different primary colors might, though).

      Now the problem with this approach is that RGB display equipment usually works by emitting the primary colors side by side, as becomes apparent if one spills a drop of water on a screen (or use a magnifying glass). This results in some inherent color bleeding that this new technique will resolve.

      It's hard to tell how significant the change is, at least for us humans, since all of our current full color display techniques are RGB based (with the possible exception of non-cmyk paints), but isn't it worth it just to let our dogs watch Lassie in their own color spectrum?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by maxume (22995)
        It's gone paywall online, but a recent edition(June or August) of Scientific American has an article about bird vision, with comparisons to mammalian and human vision.

        http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=0 00DA6AC-F10C-1492-A7CE83414B7F0000 [sciam.com]

        There are nifty diagrams showing the different pigments present in the different eyes and their sensitivities. Another interesting factoid, birds have oil droplets associated with their color sensing cells; the droplets narrow the spectrum that the cell is sen
      • by zacronos (937891)

        Now the problem with this approach is that RGB display equipment usually works by emitting the primary colors side by side, [...]. This results in some inherent color bleeding that this new technique will resolve.

        Actually, I don't think that's the problem. Consider, for example, a 3-color projection system. That is, say I have 3 projectors, and each projects a different color of light: red, green, and blue. If I use shades-of-grey transparencies on those projectors to create 3 appropriate single-color

    • People often ask what's the point of 64-bit processing - who benefits? Well, the one thing that would probably be worth having is system wide 64-bit color - as long as the display technology could handle it. Maybe this is one way of achieving that.

      Any technology dependent on gold is always going to be expensive even if a finished screen only requires small quantities. A gram of gold is around $20 today - at least it's cheaper than coke but it's still expensive.
      • by FLEB (312391)
        Well, one upside to gold (and other precious metals) might be cheaper available recycling after the life of the product, since there is lucrative material to be mined.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        And what would you use 64-bit colour for? Different colour channels tend to be processed separately so what you're really talking about is 64-bit per pixel colour. Considering 16 bpp is a foreign concept to the consumer market and 32 bpp has so far failed to catch on, 64 might not be an immediate advantage of 64-bit computers.
    • Of course we can only see in four colours (Red, Green, Blue, and "night vision"), but our sensors have broad, overlapping peaks of sensitivity, thus green will also evoke blue and red. However, blue-green will evoke considerably less red (less than half of what green does), so a real blue-green emitter will give us a colour not deliverable with existing technology. Screens should be sharper as a result, through less polluting cross-colour; not only will black be very black, but Indigo will be very Indigo
    • Combined with matching optics, could one not use one of those polymer displays to create multiple wavelength signals and send them through one fiber, in theory allowing an indefinite number of signals?

      This is more-or-less already being done, although not with this technology. (But new ways of doing it might prove to be more cost-effective.) See Wavelength division multiplexing [wikipedia.org].

    • (Offtopic) I don't have enough information to comment on this new technology, but I can say high dynamic range displays mentioned by this parent post rock. Here are a few links if you want to know what/how they are: 1 [hardwaresecrets.com] 2 [cybergrain.com] 3 [brightsidetech.com]
    • by Stalus (646102)

      There are some high range displays (at least in research facilities) giving you a larger dynamic per color than the 256 scales of traditional 24 bit images, so the lack of "true colors" mentioned in the article might be solved by conventional technology.

      You're right that primary colors aren't a phenomenon of physics, but rather of physiology. We can fake the human sensor into seeing the other wavelengths by independently stimulating the red, green, and blue sensors, each of which has a frequency respon

    • by Shotgun (30919)
      I'm a little late, but I still thought you might like to know. There actually isn't any problem with dumping as many wavelengths you like into a mixer and out through the fiber. The big issue is the composition of the fiber itself. They are carefully crafted to offer the least impediment to certain wavelengths. The fibers themselves are 'tuned' so to speak. Hence, you have single-mode and multi-mode fibers. The terms are referring specifically to the wavelengths that the fibers were designed for. 138
  • by Anonymous Coward
    "Man - the color on your monitor packs a real punch!"
  • Potentially neat. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by CosmeticLobotamy (155360) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @07:25PM (#15942172)
    For certain applications. It's my understanding that usually the synthetic muscle stuff isn't particularly speedy in changing shape. My first question is how many flips per second can you get? Are we aiming for TVs or variable paintings? My second question is about power requirements. 300 volts, sure, but are we talking amps or microamps?

    Neat, as most science is, but possibly not terribly useful.
    • by bjason82 (820735)
      That's my thought exactly, with regards to using this technology to transfer data over fiber. As humans we do not require an extremely fast refresh rate in order to simulate movement, many computer monitors run at 60Hz.

      But, when you're transferring information at broadband speeds you need to be able to pump out that data at a rate that could overwhelm the artificial muscle. I am not claiming to know much about this technology, but like others have said, I have my doubts as to how fast it is capable of oscil
      • by cjsm (804001)
        As for as projector bulbs go, I have a front projector with a DLP chip, and the bulbs are about $350. Some models are over $400 and up. And the bulbs really only last a couple of years with moderate usage; and lose half their brightness in the process. I can't believe the bulbs cost that much to make. IMHO they're basically fleecing you on the bulbs, similar to ink with ink jet printers.
  • by Zarhan (415465) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @07:29PM (#15942177)
    So we have a "pixel" that can be truely any color. Does it mean "any" color, as in Hue, or can it truely be of anything (ie. full spectrum output; Image of fluorescent light would have spiky spectrum, etc.). If the former, instead of RGB we can simply transmit HSV (Hue-Saturation-Value(Brightness)), but if it's a continuous spectrum...

    Instead of transmitting just RGB values from 0-255 (24 bits) per pixel, instead you have to somehow convey the entire spectrum. At what resolution do you get? Instead of three values (R, G and B) do you get 400 (one per nanometer, from 300 to 700 nm?) - or 4000? What kind of format do spectrograms use?

    Anyway, consider transmitting data from a spectrogram - times some standard monitor resolution - for multiple frames per second. That's a lot of uncompressed data.
    • RTFSummary (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ant P. (974313)
      It reflects white light. It works like a glass prism. Do you see people working with prisms getting microwaved to death or skin cancer from UV? There's your answer.
    • Instead of transmitting just RGB values from 0-255 (24 bits) per pixel, instead you have to somehow convey the entire spectrum.

      It's just a tunable filter with a default value. That default value could be. . .red, blue or green.

      The filter is "tweaked" by sending it another value, say, one between 1 and 255.

      KFG
      • by monoqlith (610041)
        But how does that produce any more colors than a traditional screen? I thought the entire point was to escape the limitations imposed by the RGB standard - with non-integer red green and blue values between 0 and 255 the number of possible colors increases to infinity, assuming any decimal value is fair game, as far as I can tell. Is this correct? Someone please explain. I don't understand your fancy modern displays or your color definition spectrum, I'm just a caveman!
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Aschwanden and colleagues built arrays of 10 pixels, each 80 micrometres across. The pixels consist of a piece of polymer covered with ridges tipped with gold. When white light is shone at the polymer from one side it reflects out of the screen and is also split into different wavelengths by this "diffraction grating".

          However, a slit above the polymer ensures that only one wavelength of light escapes, giving the pixel its colour. The pieces of polymer also contract in response to current, like simple muscle

          • by x2A (858210)
            "*Not strictly true for some kinds of light sources"

            Depending on exactly what you mean by "infinite gradient of spectrum", it's not true for any kinds of light sources, as photons only exist at discrete frequencies, the spectrum will be stepped into a finite number of colours... but yes the number's still big and this isn't sticking to the "let's keep this simple" thing either :-p

        • by kfg (145172) *
          I didn't mean to suggest that would be the way the technology would be used. There are all sorts of ways to combine the elements to get intereting results. I just hoped to give you a simple idea of the technology.

          One of the most obvious ways to use it is to send each pixel a number between 0 and 16.8 million and instantly triple the resolution, since you no longer need three pixels per color.

          Want 256 times 16.8 million colors? Add 8 bits of memory for each pixel (which means you'll need four times the video
    • Continuous phenomena can be approximated, meaning that you can represent some useful set of values with finite precision. Currently your graphics hardware approximates the colour spectrum with three integer components ranging between 0 and 255. It could be better, but obviously it's functional enough and you don't need infinite storage or transfer bandwidth.

      Seeing as HDR [wikipedia.org] techniques are pretty much all the rage in graphics right now, I wouldn't be surprised if the pipeline were to go entirely floating po [wikipedia.org]

  • by Fishead (658061) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @07:45PM (#15942218)
    ...Sweet! That's almost as good as the camera on my cell phone!
  • Fewer colors (Score:1, Redundant)

    by Eideewt (603267)
    Wouldn't a display built like this be able to display fewer colors than a regular one? In particular, I don't see any way to control brightness or saturation with this setup.
    • by Ant P. (974313)
      Brightness and saturation are easy to do - just make the display like a regular LCD, only instead of RGB you have colour/grayscale.
      • by Eideewt (603267)
        Do you mean each pixel would have a brightness filter in front of it? I suppose that would work, although this display would be useless unless you have fairly white light to use it in. Your palette would consist only of the colors shining on the thing. It would probably work great in sunlight though (aside from being possibly blinding).
  • it brings a new meaning to the term "Muscle TV".
  • how much can your monitor bench maaan~!

    *ducks*
    • by wtansill (576643)
      how much can your monitor bench maaan~!

      *ducks*
      Feh! My monitor can beat up your monitor with one channel tied behind its back!
  • by macadamia_harold (947445) on Saturday August 19, 2006 @08:17PM (#15942300) Homepage
    Cutting the current causes the muscle to return to its original state.

    Depending on what you're watching, that's a lot like regular TV.
  • by QuantumFTL (197300) * <justin.wickNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday August 19, 2006 @08:17PM (#15942302)
    The ability to generate any visible light frequency would not only extend the gamut to the full human range (unlike other schemes, like the 6-color Iridori system presented at SIGGRAPH 2004 [siggraph.org]), but it would also allow tetrachromats [wikipedia.org] to enjoy television and computers much better (this issue was discussed previously [slashdot.org] on slashdot).

    Of course, as the article suggests, they will still have to use multiple emitters per pixel, as it can only generate colors on the edge of the CIE Color Space [wikimedia.org] (warning, you can't see what colors they are, because your monitor cannot display anything outside the RGB Triangle). And of course tetrachromats are rare but have been found [slashdot.org].
  • Wouldn't this be a good solution to a lot of the problems currently faced with active camouflage?
  • Neat, but... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by virtuald (996377)
    This is definitely an interesting technology, but I still think that display technology really has a long way to go before it can be used for general purpose things such as books and the like. The one thing that bugs myself about monitors/lcd's is that they always require a backlight or some active light source to function -- which IMHO really can bug the crap out of your eyes. What if they could invent a technology that didn't require a light source to be seen, but just reflected whatever existing light.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mark-t (151149)

      It's called electronic paper and we have a ways to go with it yet. In particular, with regards to decent resolution with color technology. Last I heard they were only up to about 80dpi for color. Monochrome technology for e-paper is at 300dpi or better.

      The refresh rate on this technology is also fairly slow... it's unacceptable for animation, but would be fine for relatively static images such as pages from a book. The display also only draws power while it is being changed, so it's very energy-frie

  • Sounds to me like this system could be a potentially useful miniaturization step for anything with a diffraction grating in it--OPOs spring to my mind. (Oh well. I got out of optics so I could _stop_ thinking about crap like this.)
  • by Richard Kirk (535523) on Sunday August 20, 2006 @03:48AM (#15943304)
    There have been devices that have attempted to reproduce the entire spectrum before. Surface acoustic wave devices were used in the 80's and 90's to give switchable gratings. I remember working with a film recorder that used to use one of these. Unfortunately, it was not sufficiently saturated, and later versions used a filter wheel. Wyszecki and Stiles also cite an earlier gadget where white light was spread into a spectrum, and a template was used to select the spectra wanted: you could do the same thing with an LCD. There are also switchable liquid crystal colour filters which were used with black and white CRTs to give a colour display, though this technology could not manage continuously variable spectra unless you made the filter a lot deeper and more lossy.

    You probably do not need a continuously variable spectrum for each pixel. A simple set of red, green, and blue primaries cannot reproduce the stimulus of all the spectral colours, yet they give a good enough representation of most scenes. This works because the eye-brain system transmits brightness, colour, motion detection, and other signals as firing rates in nerves. The nerves will typically have a significant background firing rate even for zero signal, so the system has to continuously try to calibrate itself, and work out what the zero and scale signals are. This is why we can look at printed images with a typical contrast ratio of 100:1 and a white point as set by the ambient light, and recognize a scene without worrying that the blacks look grey or the whites look coloured. Many illusions depend on fooling this feedback process. For example, if you look at a slowly moving object for some time and the look at a still scene, it may seem to rotate in the opposide direction because your motion sensors have adapted. Well, the same happens with your sense of colour contrast - that will adapt to compensate for the variations due to intensity. If you look at a dimmer version of an image, the colour difference signals are weaker but colours you see will look much the same (until you get down to mesopic light levels, and the adaption system begins to pack up altogether). If you are looking at an image in a darkened room, and the colours are 10% desaturated, you will probably not notice unless there is some other stimulus (such as a red power LED on your monitor) to act as an independent reference. It many seem that a three-component display can only get at about half the colour space within the spectral locus, but under typical viewing conditions, we are poor judges of colour contrast. If you want to make an image look more colourful, make it brighter. Get a slide projector and move it close to the screen so the image is small but really bright - you know the colours have stayed the same and only the intensity has changed, but you will probably find the colours a lot more satisfying.

    There are other reasons for wanting to go for more primaries. You eye does not have uniform colour sensitivity: it will detect colours differently in the centre and in the periphery. The brain tries to remove this variation, as it is part of the eye not part of the image. You do not see this variation directly, but you can get to see it if you look at a large white patch on a screen where the left and right halves have different spectra. If you have an RGB projector with broad spectral primaries, this will give you a similar stimulus to a general reflection scene in the central and the peripheral vision, but you will not be able to get the saturated colors. If you have narrow band primaries, you will be able to get the deep reds, peacock blues, and violets you cannot get with the broad primaries, but you may have strange side-effects because your central and peripheral vision no longer match. make a projector with six primaries, and you could get the best of both.

    But, is the extra effort really worth it? It is a bit like 3D - twice as much technology giving you a bit of extra stimulus that can startle, but can also detract from the nett visual experience. I would love one of these variable filters as a research tool, but I don't expect fully spectral displays any time soon.

    • There are other reasons for wanting to go for more primaries. You eye does not have uniform colour sensitivity: it will detect colours differently in the centre and in the periphery. The brain tries to remove this variation, as it is part of the eye not part of the image. You do not see this variation directly, but you can get to see it if you look at a large white patch on a screen where the left and right halves have different spectra.

      I've got a common color sensing defect in my red cones, which shifts

  • It seems like top athletes will soon have another reason for possessing EPO, testosterone,THG,... ;) Sick mothers-in-law or dogs that for some reason need EPO don't cut it anymore these days. "No sir, I only used it to brighten up my TV".
  • How can a simple "Slit" allow for only one wavelength to pass through?

    Wouldn't this pass all wavelengths shorter than a given wavelength which is proportional to the slit's width?
    (This is more like a low-pass filter than a band-pass)
    • err... high-pass rather than band-pass.
    • Difraction is very much different from filtering. If you shine light [*1] at a grating [*2] the light coming out on the other side "fans out" each frequency coming out at a different angle. It is so long since my freshman physics lab. But there we shone the yellow sodium vapor lamp light at a grating and it "bent" the light and the output came at 2 O' Clock position instead of going straight. Each frequency will come out at a different angle.

      [*1] Polarized collimated coherant light.

      [*2] Grating is a

  • The red, green, and blue light coming from my computer screen are chosen to give a broad range of colors for a normal human eye. Unfortunately, these colors suck for us color-blind dudes. A significant benefit of this technology may be improved color rendering for color-blind folks like me.

    In my own eyes, the cones sensitive to red have a slight defect that shifts their sensitivity towards green. In the real world, some reds look black to me, since they don't fire the cones. Others (closer to green) sho
  • In 2003, a group of researchers at the U of Toronto unveiled a prototype photonic crystal gel technology for electronic paper [electronicproducts.com]. I looked it up again, but nothing has been published on it since.

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