Imagine the blackest black that you can. Now, make it blacker.
Vantablack is in fact the blackest material that exists on our planet. Mind blowingly, it is not the blackest in the universe, but it is the closest thing to a black hole as we are ever likely to see. That's because vantablack absorbs up to 99.965% of the light that hits it. The thing is, though, black is not a color — it’s the absence of. And because our brains can’t process something so devoid of color, it simply registers as blank.
Vantablack was first developed in 2014 by the English company Surrey NanoSystems and was supposed to be a specialty product for aerospace and optics; some of its current uses include preventing stray light from entering telescopes, and enhancing the performance of infrared cameras on Earth as well as in outer space. Because of the various interesting properties of vantablack, it generated a lot of buzz across the board.
But, as is often the case with novel space tech, vantablack is astronomically expensive to produce. So, in 2016, scientists created a version of vantablack that was a tiny bit less black, cheaper, and sprayable — which made it much easier to apply. “When used as a coating, Vantablack appears to change the dimensions of an object, rendering 3D objects completely flat.” Aside from being a curious technology for scientists, it got the interest of people in the gaming industry.
“That’s where the games publisher, Activision, comes into play. Literally,” writes Luke Dormehl in Digital Trends. “For the launch of its latest Call of Duty game, Black Ops 4, Activision decided that it was going to...give gamers the chance to try out the title in a setting unlike any that they had experienced before.” The company set up a warehouse in London; inside, an additional indoor structure was constructed and sprayed with vantablack.
“As a pigment, black is tricky,” explains Wired’s Adam Rogers. “You want absorption of wavelengths across the spectrum, but that’s the beginning, not the end." For a fully immersive gaming experience, ordinary black paints simply wouldn't be able to pull off the desired effect.
"Finely ground carbon, a classic pigment for black paint and ink, is refractive, so it has some of the same sheen as coal even when suspended in whatever medium you’re using — oil, let’s say. And like any other pigment, you’ll need opacifiers and extenders, additional chemicals that give the paint or ink good coverage, help it stick to a substrate, and let it spread without subtle changes to its color or other properties.”
Gaming in a room covered in vantablack, however, turns out to be an incredible experience akin to being suspended in virtual reality. “Players see only the large screen in front of them, floating in a blackness so intense that it’s not so much a color or shade as it is a hole in existence. Plus, without the benefit of wearing a headset, of course.” Because this has never been tried before, it was difficult to anticipate the gamers’ reactions to such a unique experience.
As hypothesized, though, the experiment was a success and encouraged the game makers to brainstorm further applications of the newly accessible technology.
Note* Image and videos are sourced from Surrey NanoSystems