There are no invisible bike helmets. There are no invisibility cloaks.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 10:16 AM

A picture of what a real invisibility cloak should look like

If your Facebook feed is anything like my Facebook feed, the most ubiquitous story right now is about an invisible bike helmet invented by Swedish university students.

In theory, it’s  a wonderful, Jetsonian story. The problem is, the bike helmet is not actually invisible. It’s an airbag that looks like a scarf and inflates when you crash.

By this logic, we’ve already invented invisible beds (foldout couches), invisible silverware (silverware you put away in a drawer), and even invisibility cloaks (blankets, when you hide under them).

Stories about invisible things get shared widely because we are human beings and we like it when our imaginations get tickled. But invisibility stories betray that sense of wonder. They nearly always turn out to be lies or monstrous exaggerations.

Here’s the next fake invisibility story you can expect to start clogging up your newsfeed soon. Time reported late last week on an “invisiblity cloak” invented in Singapore.

As Slate’s Will Oremus pointed out, this one’s actually just a box that bends light around large objects. (There's a link to a video of it here, I haven't embedded it because it autoplays at an incredibly loud volume.)

I’m not a scientist, and if I were, maybe I would see Important and Broader implications to a story about a box that hides teddy bears. But as a non-scientist, I would like to hear nothing more about invisibility cloaks until the technology has reached the Harry Potter levels that headlines always promise. We all know what this would be: a sheet of invisible material that, when you put it over things, renders them also invisible. 

Until we have a Potter Cloak, I refuse to click through stories about invisibility cloaks, and I hope you will too. If scientists ever do invent a way to render ourselves invisible (and they probably won’t), I can almost guarantee you won’t discover it on Facebook.

PS. Literally as I was copy-editing this post, a THIRD invisibility story began to crop up. This one is from the University of Texas-Austin. Here is the link. You may click through it. I strongly discourage it.

PSS. On Facebook, Katie Bourzac, who says I'm being too hard on the invisbility box. 

I'm a reporter who covers materials science and tries to do it responsibly. But bending light around an object so that you can't see it IS cloaking, PJ. It doesn't work from multiple angles and with a hugely broad spectrum of light yet, and what people have built is quite clunky. I hate hypey science stories probably even more than you do but you're being too cynical here. A box that bends light around objects, thereby hiding them, is performing cloaking, even if it is not cloth-like. That said, I didn't want to write up the Singapore research when they would only offer an interview over email, but not talk.

OK. So maybe I am too cynical about invisibility. But! I still think they ought to call a cloaking box a cloaking box, not an invisibility cloak. 

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Comments [13]

Jamie Bronson

I actually stopped watching the video when the professor said he had to sit down and say OMG, you're gonna be millionaires. $550 for these?!?!?!? hahahahaha Invisible indeed. It makes your money disappear.

Nov. 18 2013 06:27 PM
BikePretty from San Francisco

The best thing about this was I learned that we bike fashion bloggers were not the *only* ones bombarded with the "news" of the Invisible Bike Helmet recently.

I reported this story a year ago. Nothing new about it. Also, it costs €400 and is only available in Europe.

So far, the blog Brooklyn Spoke has had the best response to the helmet that won't be ignored.

Nov. 16 2013 01:44 AM

Please tell me (or lie to me) that the title's a reference to:
"There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs…"
http://imdb.to/1hJSBQS

Nov. 14 2013 08:20 PM
kylemckinley from california

hi, PJ,
I love your work, but I gotta say, in keeping with some of the other comments here, that in this instance I *only* clicked through to read this b/c I was thinking that maybe you were gonna out the invisible bike helmet thing as massive hoax-- and one that presumably had taken in the editorial committee at Vimeo. My sense of disappointment, upon discovery that you were, in fact, merely pointing out that the claim of "invisibility" amounts to false advertising was strikingly similar to the sense of disappointment that you describe in learning that these things aren't really "invisible." While I don't anticipate giving up my trusty old fashioned "visible" helmet any time soon, I don't feel that I've been mislead by the "invisible bike helmet" tag line, mostly because the video is pretty awesome, whereas I feel like you've engaged in essentially the same bait-and-switch practice, but didn't give me an awesome video to watch in trade.

Nov. 13 2013 08:46 PM
Nathan from Hoboken, NJ

I appreciate the need for a catchy 'hook', PJ, but I have to say that I have a very similar reaction to the one you describe in this post TO this post. Interesting idea, but beyond the catchy headline, one might object to a lack of content.

The "Invisible" helmet is not invisible. "Miracle" cleaners are not miraculous, and much that is sold to us as "superior", "improved" and "natural" is not, in fact, better or freely-occurring in nature. As others have pointed out, it's marketing. As a stickler for language, I applaud the impulse to to call out the perpetrators of hyperbole in the public square and give them a good flogging, but please don't act as though the folks selling the "invisible" helmet have ventured into an unheard-of territory.

In pursuit of a 'theme', however, you attempt to paint the recent achievements by researchers at the University of Texas with the same "hyperbole" brush as company marketing the 'invisible' helmet. I call foul.

Discoveries in medicine, computing and robotics are part of a continuum. Every "perfect" gadget is both the improved version of the one that came before, and the impossibly faulty version of the one that will come next. The first mobile phone resembled a half-gallon milk carton and was connected to a suitcase, yet the iPhone 5, presumably, could never have occurred without that first, ridiculous item.

Similarly, a "true" (according to your definition) 'invisibility cloak' can only be made a reality as the result of a process that begins with something as 'ridiculous' as a disappearing Teddy Bear.

Personally, I find this early step to be miraculous all on its own.

Nov. 13 2013 08:20 AM
Charlie from Seattle

It's called marketing and it worked. It got us all to watch and post the the video (at least of the bike helmet) so good on em. That's their job.

That said, then visible bike helmet isn't going anywhere. Try picturing that thing on someone who is not a pretty young woman riding a bike in warm weather. I'll take my helmet thank you.

Nov. 12 2013 05:13 PM

Daniel, it pains me to say this but that was a pretty good burn.

Nov. 12 2013 03:52 PM
chip

Matthew,
For me the issue isn't about technology, it's about deceptive and sensationalist headlines. Many people are vying for my attention: newspapers, ad agencies, kickstarter campaigns, etc. What's the best way to cut through the noise? lie. Say you've invented a flying car, that cancer has been cured, that alien life has been discovered -- oh wait, you mean it's just likely life exists? this cancer cure only works in computer simulations? that is the problem.

The developers of this concept know it's not an original idea. (http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/1999/07/20569)
But in order to get attention and exposure and to 'go viral' they to capture our sense of wonder and lie to us. That's wasting my time. A more honest approach would be to call it a 'wearable airbag' and then let *me* decide whether I want to spend my time watching their pitch video.

ps. Aircraft with flapping, birdlike wings are called ornithopters.

Nov. 12 2013 03:45 PM
Jeanette

My sense of wonder was not ruined once the reveal of the Invisible Bike Helmet was made. It's a great name for the product because it makes you want to find out more. If it were called and Bicycle Head Airbag it wouldn't be nearly as catchy. These ladies will certainly sell more with the fantastical name than the "correct" one.

As much as I would love magic to be real, it isn't. There will never be a real Harry Potter invisibility cloak. The names of these items show a sense of fun.

Nov. 12 2013 03:39 PM
Daniel from Kip's Bay

This has been "Today in Pedantry" with PJ Vogt.

Nov. 12 2013 03:11 PM

Hey Matthew,

I guess my problem is that the lion's share of the reporting on the invisibility box calls it an invisibility cloak. It's not a cloak. It's a box. If it's truly wondrous, you should be able to call it what it is without diminishing its wonderousness.

Similarly, whether or not the six hundred dollar (!) bike helmet is useful, why refer to it as invisible? It calls to mind something other than what it is. At least for me.

Nov. 12 2013 01:51 PM
Lauren

I agree that light bending boxes and airbag bike helmets are interesting and perhaps important technological advances...and if they are, let the technology speak for itself and don't scam wonder out of me by calling it invisible.

Nov. 12 2013 01:15 PM
Matthew Smith from Flagtown, NJ

P.J., your complaint strikes me a little like not wanting to hear about airplanes because they don't fly like birds, and until they do you don't want to read stories about them. Technology often isn't fashioned in the ways we imagine it to, but we ignore it at our peril.

The "invisible" bicycle helmet will add visibility and arguably comfort to the wearer, and if it provides the same or better safety at a reasonable price, could prove popular.

A box that bends light around a large object is most certainly a technological advance that could have important applications. Complaining that you can't wear it seems petty.

Nov. 12 2013 12:19 PM

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