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June 19, 2020

Natural Digital

Taking inspiration from butterfly-inspired nanotech, an NSF-funded team at the University of Central Florida is creating technology to make extremely low-power, ultra-high definition displays and screens that are more natural looking and much easier on the eyes.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

A real natural.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

When you see an image on your computer or smartphone, it's vivid, sharp, clear, colorful. But not as natural-looking as (Sound effect: birds sing) -- nature.

Researchers at the University of Central Florida, inspired by how nature creates the stunning color of butterfly wings, are working to make displays with a more natural look. Instead of illuminating a screen from behind with bright LEDs, their displays are lit by reflecting light from the surrounding environment. Sort of how like you'd see a portrait on the wall.

In the natural world the kaleidoscopic colors of a butterfly look that way thanks to tiny structures on their wings, that scatter and reflect light that hits them. These nanoscale structures are also found on the feathers, skin or scales of many other creatures.

"Plasmonic Color Display" technology has been around a while and works in a similar way, with reflective nanostructures inside the screens. Displaying the correct colors at different viewing angles has been a problem though -- one the UCF team has now fixed by making the nanostructures into precise designs.

Compared to standard digital screens, the team says it's like switching from eating processed foods to natural ones. Still in development, it may be a while before we see it on our devices.

Capturing the butterfly -- without a net.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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