Photonics enables ceramic tiles to change colour and play videos

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A team of European scientists have used photonics technology to develop a set of digital, ceramic tiles capable of changing colour, changing pattern or playing videos, all of which can be controlled using either touch commands or a connected computer, smartphone or tablet. 

The tiles could be used to create smart surfaces such as interactive flooring, multicoloured building faces, or dynamic camouflage for military vehicles. 

The 'Luminous Electronic Tile' or ‘Lumentile’ project combines ceramic, glass, solid-state lighting and organic electronics to produce an interactive light source equipped with sophisticated touch screen technology. The project has received a grant of approximately €2.47 million from Horizon 2020 via the Photonics Public Private Partnership.

According to the scientists, this is the first time anyone has tried to embed electronics and photonics into ceramics or glass for a large-scale application. With the ability to play videos or display images, the tiles allow the user to turn their walls into a large ‘cinema’ screen, with each tile acting as a pixel of the overall display. 

‘This is not just a digital panel to replace an animated poster like you see on the underground network, but a whole new way of life,’ commented Lumentile project coordinator Professor Guido Giuliani from the University of Pavia, Italy. ‘You are instantly in control of your own environment: if you don’t like your bathroom in blue, now you can change it to green with one tap. If you like flowery wallpaper, ducks or Christmas trees, that’s up to you.’ The tiles can also be switched off so that a basic silver, black or white colour displays as the default setting.

Each tile measures the size of a standard, rectangular A4 piece of paper with its own internal power source, and can be used to completely or partially cover a surface such as the walls, floor or ceiling of a room. Other shapes of tile are also possible – such as hexagonal or triangular – so long as they tessellate. The tiles can even be curved in order to fit around columns or uneven contours. 

The surface of each tile has uniform and efficient illumination, achieved by Lumentile’s smart light management system, a new approach based on a light guiding slab and spatially selective light extraction. The tiles are also equipped with an on-board micro-controller, and operate on a lexical network invisible to the user. 

One of the applications that the scientists envision the tiles being used for is ‘smart flooring’, which could, for example, recognise when an elderly person has fallen over, or if an intruder has entered a prohibited space. In addition, according to Giuliani: ‘When arranged into a smart floor setting, Lumentile has the capability to form dynamic paths. The main applications of the Lumentile product are in public spaces, for example by creating luminous, interactive floors that create automatic guiding paths. In shopping centres or airports for example, if a customer needs directing to a store or terminal, they can follow an illuminated walkway.’ 

The durable nature of the tiles also enables them to be used externally, such as on the outside of a building, which creates the potential for new surfaces to advertise on, or the ability to change the colour or appearance of a structure. 

Military vehicles could also be equipped with the tiles to form an external ‘skin’ that changes on demand to camouflage the vehicle when crossing a variety of terrains, such as woodland, desert or water.

‘It may sound like the stuff of James Bond, but external tiles would create a “chameleonic skin”, or instant camouflage,’ Giuliani enthused. ‘Although we are a long way off this yet, this would allow a car or building to blend completely into its surroundings, and hence “disappear”.’ 

Coordinated in Italy by Universita Degli Studi Di Pavia, the Lumentile project is comprised of a number of partners, including the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Swiss firm Eclexys, Italian firms Julight and Keraplan, and Spanish firms Studio Itinerante Arquitectura and Knowledge Innovation Market. 

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