Invisibility cloaks are made of engineered materials that bend light and other waves around an object. Because no waves bounce back to the observer, the cloaked object (or person) becomes undetectable.
A whole suite of invisibility cloaks are now under development, all building on the same basic principle as the first prototype. When we perceive an object, we are actually detecting the disturbances it creates as energy waves bounce off it. The Duke cloak, constructed from a synthetic structure called a metamaterial, prevented those disturbances by bending light waves around the object, allowing them to continue flowing like water in a stream around a rock. Sure enough, that technology is not limited to light. In the latest designs it is being applied to mask all kinds of other waves, with the potential for zeroing out sound pollution and protecting cities from earthquakes. Meanwhile, scientists continue to pursue the original invisibility concept—work that is sparking a lot of interest in military surveillance circles.
The Tech: A group of physicists led by Tolga Ergin and Joachim Fischer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany built a light-bending fabric last year that—for the first time—rendered a cloaked object invisible to the human eye from any viewing angle.
What It’s Made of: A rigid synthetic polymer composed of tiny rods spaced about 350 nanometers (billionths of a meter) apart, a gap small enough to manipulate waves of visible light.
How it Works: As a test, researchers laid the cloak over a flat surface with a small bump in the middle. The cloak bent incoming light rays around the bump and bounced them back as if they had struck a flat surface. Observers would never know the bump existed.
Applications: For now, this cloak can hide only small imperfections on flat surfaces. But eventually, scientists hope to scale it up to conceal much larger objects anywhere in space. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) started investing in metamaterials way back in 2001, and while it doesn’t like to reveal specific intentions, the agency would certainly be interested in cloaks that conceal soldiers and military equipment.