In what is actually a fairly clever marketing gimmick, Mercedes-Benz created an invisible(ish) car for a campaign to boost awareness of their F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell technology prototype (zero emissions = invisible to the enviroment…). My thoughts on fuel cells are a whole other post but I was really interested to see how they pulled off the invisible effect. As you can see from the video, the car is not truly invisible (and is pseudo-invisible only from certain angles) but it is pretty cool experiment nonetheless.
The car is modified with an LED array mounted over the driver’s side of the car and a camera assembly on the passenger side that can transmit the picture from “behind” the car (from the perspective of someone standing off the driver’s side) to the LED array. The idea is that the light waves hit the observer’s eyes from behind the car as if it were not there to block/reflect/etc. any of them. Invisibility systems taking this approach have been an active area of research in defense and other fields for many years and have become fairly sophisticated, particularly for static systems (both object and observer). However, when either the observer or the object (or both) are moving, the problem of sensing and transmitting the appropriate picture with the correct directionality becomes much more difficult.
Even though the car is not truly invisible, the application is effective enough to accomplish the goal for this situation. Look at the faces of the people who see the car… they are surprised, impressed, curious, excited. The car is noteworthy, interesting and cool, and I think that is the biggest takeaway for me. Although Mercedes did not care about boosting the profile of mechatronics with this campaign, they took advantage of technology’s ability to intrigue and inspire people. Mechatronics has the potential to change the world in both meaningful and fun ways, but it requires fuel – engineers, capital, and belief, among other things. Showcase projects like this one can be extremely useful as a way to get people excited about its potential and to encourage people to become engineers or support new technology.
In any case, it’s always nice to see ideas make the leap from science fiction to the real world… eat your heart out, James Bond.