Forward-looking: Christened “PhotoChromeleon” due to its chameleon-like ability to change color, the ink was created by mixing cyan, magenta and yellow photochromic dyes into a sprayable solution. The team can manipulate each color channel by activating and deactivating specific light sources until they get the desired result, not unlike how an ink jet printer tweaks three primary colors to create nearly any other shade.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a reprogrammable ink that can be used to change an object’s color. And it all works by manipulating light.

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.

CSAIL postdoc Yuhua Jin, the lead author on a new paper about the project, said it could improve manufacturing efficiency and reduce overall waste.

Indeed, the ability to customize the appearance of belongings on a daily basis could eliminate the need to buy the same object in different colors, like shoes, sunglasses or even smartphone cases. Best yet, MIT said the color remains even when the object is used in natural environments, and designs can be erased and reprinted indefinitely.

MIT has been working with Ford Motor Co. on the project. Alper Kiziltas, technical specialist of sustainable and emerging materials at Ford Motor Co., said the ink could reduce the number of steps required for producing a multicolor part or improve the durability a color from weathering or UV degradation. “One day, we might even be able to personalize our vehicles on a whim,” Kiziltas added.