What Qualcomm's Butterfly-Inspired Display Could Do for Your Paint

Imagine that you lived in a world where the trajectory of personal consumer choice had approached its zenith. Information, sustenance, and shelter, even, could be chosen and adjusted by individuals and coordinated within the community for, if not optimum good, at least for minimum conflict.

Most objects that you would come in contact with would be "smart:" adjusting functions to you, rather than the other way 'round. In your home, chairs would re-form to fit your spinal structure, room dividers to your spatial needs, building facades to your preferences for sun or shade, indoor or outdoor, enclosed or open, Queen Anne or Moderne.

Perhaps one of those features of your home would be color, and perhaps you weren't satisfied with the deep burgundy that was on the dining room walls. In our imagined (and not so distant) future, you would be able to change that at the light switch, selecting a new hue from a color wheel or maybe a complex tromp l'oeil from an uploaded image.

The wall's surface, of course, would have to be quite different from the current combination of sheetrock and acrylic paint. It would be very different, for the creation of that new color would be very different than the reflection of light by a pigment like paint.

The new method would bend the light that strikes the wall surface… to your will, virtually. Like the rainbow, your new wall would break up the white light that shines on it and selectively shine back the colors that you wanted, where you wanted them. Amazing? Wondrous? Impossible?

Actually it's being done routinely right now, and the process is not that different from that of its natural inspirations, beetles, butterflies, and birds. It's called structural color and is responsible for the brilliant hues seen on the Morpho butterfly, or the oil-slick colors of a beetle's shell, or some of the iridescent colors of many bird feathers.

When white light, made up of colors of different wavelengths, shines on any of these creatures it strikes a convoluted surface. Had the surface been uniform at the wavelength scale then the light would have been reflected with all its component colors, and their signature wavelengths, in phase. This would produce so called "white" light.

The Morpho butterfly wing surface, however, is anything but uniform. It is made of tiny scales, which, in turn have ridges, which have sloping shelves. Our white light is hitting this nano-stack of shelves at different depths, and therefore its different component colors are being bounced back different distances, and therefore arriving back at different times. In other words, these shelves reflect the different color wavelengths at different speeds.

Like the jump ropes in a game of Double Dutch, some of the reflected colors are in sync, or phase, and some are not. Those that are not will cancel each other out; this is called "interference." Those that are in phase will make an even brighter color. The intense colors of Peacock feathers are a good example.

Next page: Qualcomm's mirasol display