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A simple idea by MIT researchers could be a breakthrough in creating nearly transparent displays—which could have significant medical imaging applications.

For example, surgeons could use such displays in the operating room to view scans of a patient—even real-time images. The displays could also be used for information-projecting glasses or goggles like Google Glass. One of the key features is this: even with an image projected on it, the glass remains practically transparent.

Shanhui Fan, PhD, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who was not involved in the research, was impressed:

This is a very clever idea, using the spectrally selective scattering properties of nanoparticles to create a transparent display. I think it is a beautiful demonstration.

The MIT researchers used nanoparticles tuned to scatter only certain wavelengths—that is, certain colors—of light. An MIT news release includes a video demonstration. The researchers used silver nanoparticles that produced blue images. They said nanoparticles could also be tuned to other wavelengths, allowing a full-color display.

Marin Soljačić, PhD, an MIT professor of physics, said that even as they’re displaying an image, the tuned nanoparticles let most light pass through. “The glass will look almost perfectly transparent,” he said, “because most light is not of that precise wavelength.”

Dr. Soljačić is senior author of an article about the research published Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Near-transparency is only one of the advantages of the technique. Others include simplicity, low cost, wide viewing angles, and scalability to a variety of sizes.

At this point, the research is in the proof-of-concept stage, Dr. Soljačić said. But the promising result, even without attempting to optimize the materials, “gives us encouragement that you could make this work better.”

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