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Forget Wonder Woman's jet, Japan is set for invisible trains

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 13 April 2016, 23:58 IST

When it comes to trains, the Japanese are quite literally on a different track from the rest. Now, with with the record for fastest train firmly under their belt, they've set their sights on something so incredibly unnecessary only Japan could dream it up - invisible trains. 

Seibu Railway Co., one of Japan's major private train companies, have enlisted the help of award-winning Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima to produce a set of trains that are virtually invisible to onlookers. What's more, they expect to roll them out by 2018 to celebrate the company's centennial anniversary.

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While the company has announced their intent and deadline for the project, what they haven't announced the most intriguing aspect - how they intend to achieve invisibility.

Now you see it, now you don't

Invisibility is traditionally thought of as something limited to science fiction. But scientists around the world have in fact been doing their best to change that, with varying degrees of success.

The visibility of an object is dependent on the way it reflects light, thus, the most obvious way to render something invisible is to help the light pass around an object. Which sounds impossible, but is becoming a more realistic possibility with each passing day.

Scientists have already developed meta-materials capable of bending light around an object. However, the technology is still at a nascent stage. In fact, one of the most advanced


only works on a certain wavelength of light and, while successful on a microscopic level, is nowhere near ready to mask a gigantic super high-speed train.

The alternative method is to create the illusion of invisibility the way chameleons and octopi do - by mimicking the disruption of light hitting one side of the creature on the other side, rendering them effectively invisible.

We've actually managed to recreate this effect, albeit with the help of cameras and projectors. The technology was probably most effectively showcased by

Land Rover

who, in 2014, showed off a prototype invisible bonnet. While not actually invisible, cameras at the base of the car were hooked up to a projector that projected the camera footage onto the car's bonnet, letting the driver effectively see what's beneath the car.

It would be surprising, though, if Kazuyo Sejima goes in for this tech-heavy approach. Sejima, who's been a recipient of the Pritzker Prize - the Nobel-equivalent for architecture - is known for using shiny and reflective surfaces and the initial murmurs and artist renditions seem to reflect just that.

The train is expected to be shaped almost like a bullet rather than the current boxcars presently running on the same route. In keeping with Sejima's style, the outer surface of the train is expected to be a shiny semi-reflective material that mirrors the scenery around the train, making it blend in with its surroundings and appear invisible to onlookers.

Just how Sejima will manage that without the usual camera-projector set-up, though, is yet to be seen. In fact, the architect herself


reporters that the technique had "never been seen before now."   

But while the Japanese try to figure out the how, the rest of the world has an even more pressing question. Why?

The Japanese crazy train

While the obvious answer to why Seibu wants these trains is their centennial, the nonchalance with which they've plunged into their latest endeavour has everything to do with Japanese culture.

Train nerds aren't a new thing. In fact, they're found worldwide. But no one is more obsessed with trains than the Japanese. 

Thought the Gatimaan Express was an achievement? The Japanese are working on invisible trains

In fact, so obsessed are Japan's densha otaku (train fanatics) that they even have approximately 36 different and bizarrely specific subcultures. From your run-of-the-mill Ori-tetsu who enjoys riding trains to the far stranger Haisen-tetsu who obsesses over the wiring of trains - the Japanese take their trains very seriously.

There are train-themed bars and restaurants to satisfy the average densha otaku's appetite for trains. And, for every train nerd's inner child, there are even two Thomas the Tank Engine theme parks. 

No greater example of the obsession than this: in today's world where air-travel is the only mode of transport for world leaders, the Japanese Emperor still likes to take his personal train for a spin.

Naturally, then, in Japan itself the question isn't really 'why?' They're asking 'why not?'

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First published: 13 April 2016, 23:58 IST