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MIT’s Reprogrammable Ink Could Upend Color Customization for Clothing and Shoes

Color could soon be something apparel and footwear consumers have the ability to change post purchase.

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed a technology using reprogrammable ink the university says could give consumers the ability to change the color and design of a product at-will, which could allow for endless and ongoing customization.

CSAIL has created a “PhotoChromeleon” system, which uses a mix of photochromatic dyes that can be sprayed or painted onto the surface of any object to change its color. The objects color shift when exposed to ultra violet or visible light sources, and because the process is fully reversible, it can be repeated “infinitely” according to MIT, to change colors over and over again.

“This special type of dye could enable a whole myriad of customization options that could improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce overall waste,” CSAIL postdoctorate student, Yuhua Jin, told MIT News. “Users could personalize their belongings and appearance on a daily basis, without the need to buy the same object multiple times in different colors and styles.”

MIT's photochromeleon dye on customized footwear
Examples of how the program and the dye can be used to customize footwear. MIT News

The breakthrough came as an evolution of its previous dyeing system, Colormod, which needed a 3D printer to fabricate color-changing items. The system had its flaws, however, and researchers were left frustrated by its limited resolution and color scheme.

Once applied, PhotoChromeleon dye could be used to create everything from “a zebra pattern to a sweeping landscape to multicolored fire flames” and will not be harmed by natural light. The ink solution was created by mixing multiple colors of photochromatic dyes into one sprayable solution, which MIT said eliminated the need to 3D print individual pixels.

“Specifically, they used three different lights with different wavelengths to eliminate each primary color separately,” MIT News reported. “For example, if you use a blue light, it would mostly be absorbed by the yellow dye and be deactivated, and magenta and cyan would remain, resulting in blue. If you use a green light, magenta would mostly absorb it and be deactivated, and then both yellow and cyan would remain, resulting in green.”

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In total, MIT said the process can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes.

To support the project, CSAIL created a computer program that can simulate and plan the ink’s effects while allowing almost any image to be placed onto the material. In total, MIT has tested the dye on phone cases, footwear and a toy chameleon, among other items. In fact, the whole project was sponsored by Ford to develop a paint solution that could offer greater customization for its vehicles.

Whether it’s applied to a truck or a pair of shoes, MIT and Ford believe PhotoChromeleon dye has the potential to be a game-changer when it comes to both limiting waste from environmentally-damaging dyes and creating “boundless” opportunities for personalization.

“We believe incorporation of novel, multi-photochromic inks into traditional materials can add value to Ford products by reducing the cost and time required for fabricating automotive parts,” Alper Kiziltas, technical specialist of sustainable and emerging materials at Ford Motor Co. told MIT News. “This ink could reduce the number of steps required for producing a multicolor part, or improve the durability of the color from weathering or UV degradation. One day, we might even be able to personalize our vehicles on a whim.”