How Technology and Science Might Change the Future of Color

City at night with futuristic color effect

For as long as humans have walked the Earth, color has been a constant. But that doesn’t mean our relationship with color never changes. We’ve made fabric dye from berries, made paint from pigments, and even adorned ourselves with colorful rocks.

As the centuries wore on, we determined that colors have a profound effect on our minds and even our bodies. The discovery of color psychology shaped every aspect of our lives, from interior design to marketing.

Our connection to color is an unbreakable one, and you might wonder what colorful innovations scientists will come up with next. The future of color is well on its way. Here are some new and emerging innovations shaping our use and understanding of color.

Color-Changing Shoes, Clothing, and More

Three pairs of the same model of shoe in different colors

Ever wish you could change the color of your clothing at will? Color-changing clothes might sound like something straight out of science fiction, but thanks to researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, they might be closer than you think.

In 2019, the researchers developed a system they called PhotoChromeleon. PhotoChromeleon involves using specialized photochromic dye. The dye includes reprogrammable ink that is activated and changed by light.

To change the pattern and color, users only need to place the object in a box containing both a projector and UV light. But what if you have a specific color or pattern in mind?

The researchers came up with a solution for that, too. In creating a user interface for PhotoChromeleon, they included a function where the user can upload a “blueprint.” For example, say you want a certain picture of a horse to appear on a shirt. You would just need to upload the image to the system, which could then project the picture onto the shirt.

PhotoChromeleon isn’t yet available to the general public. But in the future, it may help us constantly update the look of our clothing, shoes, phone cases, and more.

Harnessing the Power of Structural Coloration

Close up of blue papilio ulysses butterfly

“Sustainability” has become a buzzword across an array of industries. But did you know scientists have even been working to make color more sustainable?

Currently, many sources of color come from potentially harmful chemicals and plastics. These colors fade over time, and they also can’t be recycled. Researchers at the University of Cambridge are working toward creating natural, long-lasting, and non-toxic colors and pigments.

Their inspiration? Structural coloration. In structural coloration, the intricate structure of an animal or plant makes light scatter in a certain way. This process, called “light interference,” creates the color we see.

For example, the butterfly in the photo above doesn’t produce blue pigment. Rather, light reflects off the scales of its wings in a way that makes us see the color blue.

Structural coloration is usually responsible for spectacular effects like iridescence. Jewel beetles are a great example:

An iridescent jewel beetle perched on a piece of grass in a field

The Cambridge researchers decided to take a closer look at the structures responsible for structural coloration.

They found that in many cases, the building blocks of structural coloration were keratin (found in feathers and hair), chitin (found in crustaceans and fungi), and cellulose (found in plants).

Using these building blocks, the scientists were able to create brilliant colors that rivaled the ones found in nature.

Cars That Change Color at the Push of a Button

A vehicle with holographic coloring viewed from the side

Getting your car custom-painted can be a great way to express yourself and your personality. But what if you can’t settle on just one color?

BMW is offering a car color that may transform the future (or at least make driving a little more exciting). One of its newest offerings, the iX Flow, lets you customize your car like never before. The iX Flow comes with E Ink technology. This technology involves a specialized vehicle wrap that includes a number of different pigments.

When the driver touches a button, electrical signals are released throughout the wrap. These signals prompt certain pigments to rise to the surface, changing the vehicle’s color. It’s similar to the technology used in e-reader screens.

A color-changing car might sound like a lot of fun, but being able to change the vehicle’s color can also make it more energy-efficient. White and other light colors reflect a large portion of the light that hits them. Black and other dark colors absorb much of it.

If you keep the car light during the summer, you’ll likely find that you have to use less energy on air conditioning to cool it. At the other end of the spectrum, keeping your car dark in the winter may mean you don’t need to use as much heat.

A Shade of White to Save the Planet

A view from above of a resort with white rooftops

You might have heard of Vantablack, a shade regarded as the “blackest black.” Vantablack absorbs nearly all visible light. It can be used to remove stray light from precision instruments like the ones used in space.

Now, Vantablack has a polar opposite, a shade considered to be the “whitest white.” This shade of white paint, developed by Xiulin Ruan’s lab at Purdue University, can reflect up to 98.1% of sunlight.

Why does that matter? By reflecting nearly all of the sunlight that hits a building, this color may be able to drastically reduce (or even eliminate) the need for air conditioning. This doesn’t just save money, though — it also saves energy and reduces harmful emissions.

The researchers have high hopes for the as-yet-unnamed paint. They believe that if 1% of the Earth’s surface were to be covered in this specific color, global warming could actually be reversed.

Of course, 1% of the Earth’s surface is more than it sounds like. But if this paint is ultimately used on many, many rooftops, we might see some of the most harmful effects of climate change start to disappear. Not bad for an invention that looks, at first glance, like just another shade of white!

High-Tech Hair Dye

A hairstylist holds up various samples of hair colors

Most hair dyes rely on chemicals that can dry out or damage your hair over time. But researchers have discovered a surprising, damage-free new way to color hair. By using nanotechnology, they can create an invisible, thin coating that alters hair color without causing damage.

The process involves a special clay powder full of specialized nanotubes, which are tube-shaped molecules made of many different carbon atoms. Researchers mixed the powder with a dye solution and then used it to wash hair.

This process created a color-changing coating on each hair. However, the exceptionally thin coating can’t be detected by touching hair or looking at it — it can only be seen by looking at it under a microscope.

The nanotube dye process also works exceptionally fast. Researchers noted that it could transform hair color in as little as five minutes.

Notably, color isn’t the only application for this new technology. If the scientists mixed in a drug instead of dye, the coating could be used to efficiently and effectively treat lice.

We May One Day See New Colors

Butterfly and flowers in ultraviolet colors

The colors we can see all fall under the spectrum of visible light. We know that infrared light and ultraviolet light are present at either end of that spectrum, but we can’t see those wavelengths — at least not yet.

Some animal species have specialized opsin proteins that allow the cones in their eyes to actually see ultraviolet light. Bearded dragons, reindeer, butterflies, and some types of birds are able to see UV light.

It’s scientifically possible to put these specific opsin proteins into human eyes. One lab has even managed to cure color blindness in monkeys by using opsins in gene therapy.

However, some humans can already see UV light. This is a condition called aphakia. Those without aphakia have no lens in the eye — some are born without it, and others have had it removed during surgery for cataracts.

The lens is what blocks out UV rays and prevents us from seeing them. So without a lens, people can see ultraviolet light just fine — they often describe it as being blue-white in color.

It’s also possible that one day (though likely not in this lifetime), humans may be able to see more colors with no scientific intervention at all. Over time, people may evolve to have additional color receptors in their eyes and perceive colors we couldn’t even imagine today.

Color Like You’ve Never Seen Before

A person's finger touches the center of a swirl of glowing colors

Color might seem unchanging — like something that has always been and always will be. But as scientists learn more about color and how to use it, it becomes clear that the science of color is as dynamic as it is fascinating.

Many of these innovations haven’t yet reached large portions of the Earth’s population. But with a little patience, you might find that these (and other) color innovations reach you sooner than you think!