Cuttlefish may be the key to next-generation displays


Claire Hettinger, ECE ILLINOIS

Cuttlefish are hard to find. They hide under rocks and in plants using careful camouflage. They are masters of disguise.

Professor Stephen Allen Boppart's researchers think these evasive creatures could improve next-generation display technology.

“(They are) known as the chameleons of the sea because of their remarkable dynamic skin colorations, patterns, and textures,” Boppart said. “We believe we can image these dynamics in new ways and understand the mechanisms of control.”

Cuttlefish have an incredible array of muscle structures and neurobiological control that makes their skin move and change. They’re actually mollusks, not fish, and they likely won’t be winning any beauty pageants, even though they have complete control over the way their skin looks and feels.

But by raising cuttlefish and investigating the dynamic optical and mechanical properties, Boppart’s team hopes to learn about cuttlefish skin and apply that knowledge to the next generation of displays: tactile displays.

“Imagine being able to feel an image, not just see it,” Boppart said.

The idea is that by studying these animals that have succeeded in both colorizing and texturizing their skin, researchers can find a way to incorporate the cuttlefishes’ techniques into modern display technology.

The problem with current screens of different shapes - for example, in phones with curved screens - is that the picture is warped, pixelated, and unclear. Cuttlefish skin has incorporated texture and color so the “picture” it displays is clear and natural. This is something the team has discovered through research.

No one has studied live cuttlefish skin at the cellular level and in 3-D, Boppart said, and he’s using technology he developed for imaging tissues in real time to do so. This allows his research team to identify the cuttlefishes’ different types of cells and optical properties.

They’ve found that cuttlefish optically match within 3 to 5 percent error to their surroundings. So these animals aren’t simply hiding  - they’re actually mimicking and matching their surroundings’ optical wavelengths.

The idea for the cuttlefish research started with the desire to have a fish tank in the office, said Ryan Nolan, an imaging research specialist at the Beckman Institute. He originally suggested jellyfish, but after discussing with Boppart, they decided cuttlefish would be the best choice, because other cephalopods like squid were too large and octopi would figure out how to escape.

“We just jumped in the deep end,” Nolan said.

Nolan and Darold Spillman, an administrative aide, created a “Midwestern marine environment” within Boppart’s Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute. The ecosystem they created is an engineer’s dream for control, Nolan said. Satellite feeds control the temperature and current to mimic the animal’s natural habitat. The lights are set to follow the rising, setting, and intensity of the sun and moon.

“(We are) doing all of that to make willing cooperative creatures,” Spillman said. “We want to illicit a natural response, so the best thing to do is to create a natural environment for them.”

 The team has been working with the cuttlefish and marine ecosystem for almost three years, hatching the animals from eggs and raising them until they are big enough to be imaged. They are still in the biological imaging stage, but hope to begin the transition to applying their findings to the technological display research soon.

Boppart is using support from his Bliss Professorship of Engineering to conduct the research. He considers it both high-risk and high-reward, which especially in the early stages of the work, can make it difficult to pursue funding from more traditional sources.

Boppart said his team members are excited for the interdisciplinary opportunities the cuttlefish research presents. They’re collaborating with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, and researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

Stephen Allen Boppart
Stephen Allen Boppart

Boppart said he wanted to use this new research opportunity to investigate basic scientific questions using his team’s advanced engineering and imaging technologies, and he’s also found this project inspires others to explore and ask fundamental questions, as well.

"We've had so many groups of K-12 students come by, enjoy watching and learning about our cuttlefish, and leaving with a look of fascination,” Boppart said. “That's not only inspiring to me and my students, but also very rewarding."