From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published October 5, 2012 11:00 AM

Learning from Cephalopods: Creating Better Colors for E-Paper

Over millions of years, animals like the chameleon and cuttlefish, octopus and squid, have adapted color-changing abilities through natural selection. Depending on the trait, these adaptations can help organisms stay camouflaged from predators, better communicate warning signals, or even attract mates. While humans do not have the color-changing ability minus maybe a seasonal tan, researchers are suggesting we should use this biological information to develop more sophisticated color in electronic devices.


Technology that mimics ordinary print on paper, known as e-paper lags behind biological systems in optical performance, especially in color generation. As a result, some e-paper technologies are now attempting to emulate optical effects already perfected in nature.

In an effort to compare the two mediums, a multidisciplinary team led by University of Cincinnati researchers wrote the paper "Biological vs. Electronic Adaptive Coloration: How Can One Inform the Other?" which aims to help biologists who work with these color-changing creatures and engineers who work with e-Paper technology.

According to UC's Kreit, "Our main goals were threefold: To allow display engineers to learn from millions of years of natural selection and evolution. To teach biologists the most advanced mechanisms and performance measurements used in human-made reflective e-Paper and to give all scientists a clearer picture of the long-term prospects for capabilities such as adaptive concealment and what can be learned from now you see me, now you don't mechanisms."

One of the researchers' key findings is that there are numerous approaches to change the reflective color of a surface and that the highest-performance approaches developed by both humans and nature share some powerful common features. Both use pigment, and both change or achieve color expression by either spreading or compacting that pigment.

Both technology and biological color-changes have pros and cons for the ways in which they change color.

Technologies outperform nature them in terms of speed (human-made electronics can achieve color change faster than the response time of a biological organism), coloration (screens have a wider ranger of color spectrum), and dark states (a device can achieve a black screen, but most biological organisms cannot turn to a dark or black state as it would make them more visible to predators).

However, color-changing organisms have major advantages in terms of energy use (biological organisms are more efficient because they do not require large amounts of electric power to generate bright color), texturing (organisms are 3-D and can achieve color depth), and scalability (size of color patterns are not limited to a screen).

The study hopes to show that we can learn much from biology in terms of how to increase the sophistication of technology.

Read more at the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Cuttlefish image via Shutterstock.

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