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Invisibility cloaks and walking up walls

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

While we most likely won't be commuting to work in flying cars in the near future, we could soon be climbing the walls and wearing invisibility cloaks.

Tom Cassin, head of the technology, media and telecommunications practice at Deloitte, predicts that although we won't be watching holographic TV or travelling to work in flying cars by 2010, "technology [in the future] will be far more involved in our everyday lives than ever before".

Cassin has outlined the growing use of technology in several scenarios, such as in the classroom, through entertainment, and while travelling. He envisages that email, wireless technologies and the internet will continue to reign supreme but will be supported by, for example, developments in robotic systems.

While the concept of personal flying machines may still be far off, we may get the chance to walk up walls if transatlantic aerospace and defence company BAE Systems has anything to do with it. The firm is currently working on what the media has dubbed "Spiderman suits", which will allow soldiers of the future to scale sheer vertical surfaces.

Referred to as "infantry climbing suits" by the company, they are reportedly made from a material that closely mimics the feet of a gecko lizard. Gecko feet are themselves covered with hairs so tiny they merge with the very molecules they touch.

Dr Jeff Sargent, a research physicist at BAE Systems' Advanced Technology Centre in Bristol told reporters: "We wanted to mimic this ability...We have made a small amount of this material and we have demonstrated that it will stick on glass surfaces to demonstrate that it's got some potential.

"Having a Spiderman glove is a long way down the road, but in principle, you might have something like that," he added.

So far the potential applications for these suits have all been military-related, but ENN's resident futurologists have suggested a range of other interesting applications, in the areas of standard field sports, public transport space-saving, search and rescue assistance, and a number of other potentially illegal deployments which we can't go into.

Meanwhile, if the guys at BAE Systems ever team up with their fellow superhero fans at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, then we could all be in trouble. St Andrews theoretical physicist Dr Ulf Leonhardt published research on Monday which describes the physics behind invisibility devices.

Invisibility is an optical illusion confusing the viewer into believing an object or person is not present. Dr Leonhardt uses the example of water circling around a stone. The water flows in, swirls around the stone and then leaves as if nothing was there.

"If you replace the water with light then you would not see that there was something present because the light is guided around the person or object. You would see the light coming from the scenery behind as if there was nothing in front," Dr Leonhardt told Reuters.

In a highly technical description, Dr Leonhardt said the possibility of invisibility cloaks is a real one, but it would be of the Invisible Woman format of Marvel comics' fame, rather than the Harry Potter variety.

"What the Invisible Woman does is curve space around herself to bend light. What these devices would do is to mimic that curved space," he said. Dr Leonhardt added that one of the potential applications of this principle we may see soon is metamaterials which bend radar or electromagnetic waves used by mobile phones. The devices could be used as protection mechanisms so radiation emitted from mobile phones does not penetrate electronic equipment, but rather is guided around it.

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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