Wiki defines Quantum Dots as: “a semiconductor whose excitons are confined in all three spatial dimensions. As a result, they have properties that are between those of bulk semiconductors and those of discrete molecules.” It's a rather dry explanation for a very interesting device. QDs have numerous abilities that are extremely useful, but I'm going to limit this discussion to two major possibilities that are directly relevant to VR. The first is that QDs make extremely useful cameras, and the second is that they make extremely useful displays. In other words, they can capture light, and they can emit light.
Future advances may enable us to combine those with other functions, but for now I am going to limit myself to examining these as separate uses, and speculate on how they are likely to be used in the near future, possibly even as soon as the latter half of this decade.
This article in Technology Review -- that first peaked my interest -- describes how QDs enabled the ability to make high resolution cameras smaller than previously possible. Later, I came across this one on how graphene can be used to create regular structures of quantum dots. If you've read my previous H+ magazine article on graphene, then you are aware of how it is likely to be used for most computing applications within the decade, possibly sooner. Indeed, it seems like it grows closer to commercial use with every new news article I read. That basically means graphene could be used to create entire QD camera circuits, tiny cameras with pixel resolutions far higher than the rods and cones in the human eye. Now, in this context, consider this story about the use of quantum dots in ink that can self organize into arrays which can be used as solar cells, laser diodes, and regular LEDs in every color of the spectrum.
If you put those three news stories together I think you can see how graphene could be used to create displays that simultaneously act as both cameras and displays. Which means that while you watch the display, it is also watching you.
So that iPad -- or whatever version exists a few years from now -- will be able to watch you for such applications as gestural UIs, face to face video calls, and even for such vanity applications as a mirror.
This basically give you a concrete starting point to think about what a combined camera/display essentially does. And if you read the part about the QD ink, you can probably conceive how we could essentially use QDs in much the same way we currently use paint, dye, ink, and other pigments, and it's with this use in mind that I am about to indulge in a virtual brainstorming session of speculation of possible uses for QDs in the near future. Keep in mind, there are many more possible uses QD than just as camera/displays, but I'm going to limit this mainly to those uses.
About 15 years ago, when I first read about nanotechnology, I thought about a “small machine” that did more or less exactly what a QD currently can be used for. My idea was a “microbot” that could either record light, or emit light, and self arrange themselves into a pattern which could be controlled externally as a “display.” I called these fanciful devices P.I.G.M.E.N.T.S (feel free to try and make up words to fit the acronym, I never could.) I gave no details about how to make them, because I had none at the time, but I did do a lot of thinking about their uses. Currently Quantum Dot's seem to be able to fill the same function, so I'm going to assume a few properties that I believe are likely to be developed in just a few years. The first is the ability to be applied to any surface to form a continuous “camera/display” (CD). The second is sufficient “programmability” to enable the effects I am going to describe, and the third is that this C/D doesn't affect any other properties of the material.
That said, I am going to use Second Life to provide visual examples of what I am discussing, so that it can be easily visualized.
This is a box. It's a prim available for creation in Second Life, and as you can see it looks like a block of wood. If I take this block of wood, and paint it with C/D ink, it will still be a block of wood, but suddenly I gain the ability to manipulate nearly every aspect of its appearance except shape. I can, for example, make it pink by setting all the QDs to display a pink color at a level consistent with reflected ambient light, as sensed by the camera pixels, and being produced by the display pixels.
If I change light levels to a higher intensity and tell the camera pixels to keep the displayed color the same regardless of ambient light, I can make it a single color that has no shadows because the color compensates for shadows by being slightly adjusted up or down in intensity to compensate for the shadows. Set the intensity even higher, and you can make the object “glow” and set it even higher, and it can provide illumination.
Of course, since the C/D can detect incoming light and increase the brightness of the display, it can prevent the “washout” effect of sunlight on a display, making it quite possible to create a display that is equally visible across a shadow line, rather than being too bright in shadow, or too dim in sunlight.
Of course, having this kind of control also allows us to control the transparency. By using the cameras on one side to capture the light coming in, and transmitting it to another side, even if the object is opaque, we can make it appear transparent. We can also change its reflectivity, as changing the shape of our box to a sphere makes easier to see. Our object could be mirror surfaced, partially mirrored, or even just “shiny".
But we don't have to stick with just plain colors either, as our cube could actually have any sort of texture or graphic, as my cube now has my favorite evil AI, S.H.O.D.A.N. from the System Shock games, looking out from it. I could just as easily make this a flat texture like it is in the photo, or I could illuminate it. It could even be animated.
I can also control how each side of an object reacts to light, for example making one side show a texture, and another side transparent, as our box now shows.
I can also use such an object to provide an “invisibility” cloak, by taking the light from behind me and re-emitting it in front of me. In SL this only reacts to my actual “body” so it's not quite a full “invisibility” cloak, but it's good enough to illustrate the idea.
So in short, Quantum Dots arranged as a Camera/Display would allow us to manipulate the visual properties of materials as easily as I can control them in Virtual Space.
So put all of those abilities together and what do you get?
This is a picture of me in my Neon Jackal Avatar. It should give you at least a little idea of the possibilities as applied to clothes.
But clothes are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. As you can see from my Jackal's hair, QD's could also be used as a dye for hair, or for tattoos, even makeup. Imagine being able to change your hair color at a whim, or change your makeup at the touch of a button. Remember Total Recall and the secretary with the “quick change” nails? QDs could make those a reality. Or we could make these animated tattoo's envisioned by Philips.
But visible light is not all a QD can manipulate. QD's have ranges that can go into both the infrared and ultraviolet. They cover a far broader range of the light spectrum than just that visible to the human eye. At present I don't think we've yet determined exactly how broad that spectrum really is for QDs, since it is dependent on the size of the QD. So think about those aspects I illustrated above, and consider their use in the IR and UV spectrum. That “invisibility cloak” could also delete infrared signatures, or display entirely different ones. And those same QDs are far more sensitive to light than the rods and cones in the human eye, meaning that it could enable low light visibility far better than current starlight or IR scopes.
So what does all of that mean besides neat TRON inspired clothing? Well let's think about what you could do with a video display/camera that can be applied to nearly any surface. The obvious uses for ultra thin monitors and tablet computers are rather pedestrian. Even such uses as a 150” TVs are kind of tame. Really, why bother with a TV when you could turn every wall in your home into a screen?
It might be “video paint” or “video wallpaper.” Regardless, we will soon be able to give every wall in your home the same abilities I just illustrated. Neat hmm? But wait! There's more!
Why would a home whose outer walls could transmit an image to the inner walls need windows? Why would a home that can produce a light source from any surface need lights… or pictures to dress up the walls, or posters, or any kind of static display? You could program the walls to display an ever changing series of fantasy landscapes, make “windows” appear to hang in midair showing your actual outside view while the rest of the wall shows the view from the moon, or Mars, or Middle Earth. We could build houses far more structurally sound if we eliminate windows, and they would be much more energy efficient. QD's will allow us to do so without sacrificing the ability to “look out,” and will also allow the sunlight in without allowing the IR which upsets the climate controls.
Looking beyond the home, it could enable us to have car windows that can reflect IR while allowing other light in and make the inner surface IR transparent to allow the light that gets converted to IR right back out again, finally putting an end to “Oven Car Syndrome.” It could also actively amplify all available light at night, enabling you to see as well at night as you can during the day, while eliminating those blinding oncoming headlights.
And how about the possibilities for Quantum Dot based C/Ds? If you've recently bought a Kinect for your Xbox, then you are now the proud owner of a LIDAR. This technology uses a pulse of laser light like radar uses radio waves to map out its environment. A C/D could not only produce such lasers, but it could produce hundreds of thousands of them, each with a distinct “coded pulse” that would tell the cameras which particular QD in the display emitted it. That means that beyond just passive “light manipulation,” a C/D could map the visual environment in as great a level of detail as we could wish. That means that when hooked to a computer, it can “create” a virtual copy of that environment. So that night driver could, in theory, use his window as a “Virtual Display” using LIDAR to map his environment, and instead of transmitting a light enhanced display, he could literally “turn night to day” Also, since such displays could be deposited on nearly any surface, you now have all the elements to create a set of VR Lenses, like the ones I described in my Virtualization series. . This would be a set of “video” glasses that can not only display the world around you by simple passive light transmission, but which can also provide “enhanced” reality, such as IR vision, UV vision, simple passive light amplification, magnification, telescopic vision, and LIDAR enhanced augmented vision. Additionally, it can provide Augmented Reality, by enabling computer overlays which enhance the reality around you with additional features, or enables you to replace elements in reality with entirely Virtual features, like replacing people with their computer avatars.
But C/Ds don't just apply to personal gadgets, because there are enormous numbers of commercial uses as well, from animated cereal boxes, to 3-way mirrors that let you try on any number of different dresses without having to change clothes. Add a layer of C/Ds to a drawing table, and you could instantly draw directly into a computer without even needing a touch screen. Need a keyboard? That table top could form one instantly, and the cameras could easily track your fingers when typing. Don't like your cars paint job? Change it as easily as you change your computers background picture. Heck, you can make it look like glass if you want.
From clothes to computers, cosmetics to cars, house to highways, the appearance of our world is about to become infinitely malleable. It's not true “programmable matter” yet, but it's one step closer. It won't matter what it is, once we cover it in Quantum Dot Camera/Displays, its appearance will be whatever we decide it will be.
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