Summary:

A new study led by researchers at the University of Cincinnati looks at the lessons engineers can learn from color-changing animals like squid, octopus and cuttlefish. They find the secrets of a cuttlefish’s skin could be key to helping build a better e-reader.

How is a Kindle like an octopus? A new research paper from a University of Cincinnati team explores the parallels between animals that can change color and e-paper screens on devices like the Kindle.

“E-paper still lags behind biological systems in optical performance, especially in color generation,” the paper’s authors wrote, “which is not surprising because biology has had more than a 100-million-year head start. As a result, some e-paper technologies are now attempting to emulate optical effects already perfected in nature. Therefore, e-paper engineers should be examining equivalent biological systems in greater detail.”

The authors caution that “comparing a squid and an Amazon Kindle e-reader is not highly meaningful” (though it makes for a great headline) but “important comparisons can be made between the function and performance of biological pigments and reflectors, and similarly functioning synthetic pixels and components.”

A University of Cincinnati press release distills the paper’s findings. Animals that change color — the study looked at the cephalopods, which includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish — and e-readers are similar, for example, in that “both use pigment, and both change or achieve color expression by either spreading or compacting that pigment.” Animals are more efficient at using available light to change color than electronic devices. But electronic devices can change color faster than animals and “can provide a greater range of colors and more efficient dark or black state.”

One way that animals could help electronic devices improve: The paper notes that cephalopods can actually change, or “crinkle,” their skin’s texture to match other surfaces, and says that would be useful for “reconfigurable keyboards used in touch-based smart phones and tablets. It would be highly desirable to provide both visual display of the keyboard and texture/tactile feedback. The ability of cephalopods to modulate the texture of their skin could, in theory, provide a form of tactile feedback.”

The full paper, “Biological vs. Electronic Adaptive Coloration: How Can One Inform the Other?” is by Eric Kreit, Lydia M. Mäthger, Roger T. Hanlon, Patrick B. Dennis, Rajesh R. Naik, Eric Forsythe and Jason Heikenfeld and is published in The Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

Octopus photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Albert Kok

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