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Take That, You Creepy Dementors

A certain wizard has been watching you on the way to work this week. From San Francisco to Sydney, the world's most famous 13-year-old boy beckons from billboards in anticipation of the global movie release of Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. The third film in the hugely popular series promises fans a new take on its exciting universe of magical gizmos, creatures, and spells.

So it may come as a surprise to discover that Harry's world, where flying cars and invisibility cloaks are the norm, isn't that far from our own. Scientists the world over are perfecting inventions that could make the magic created by British author J.K. Rowling part of everyday life.

Need an invisibility cloak to escape from work? Scientists at the University of Tokyo's Tachi Laboratory, the school's virtual reality research center, have invented an ingenious camouflage material that makes the wearer seem transparent. When worn as a cloak, it displays the scene behind the wearer onto the front of the light-reflective material. A camera records the images from behind the cloak, then transmits them in real time to a projector that displays the images on the front. For the moment, the illusion only works from one side, but the inventors think commercial uses will be manifold. By the time it's available in around 2008, the technology could, for example, help pilots see through the floor of their plane to make landings easier.


More potter tech is coming your way. The new movie will be the first of the film series to introduce the "Marauder's Map," a magical, flexible display that shows Harry where people and creatures are in his school, even as they skitter down corridors and into rooms. A similar technology is soon to be released by Netherlands-based Royal Philips Electronics (PHG) unit Polymer Vision. Polymer's flexible display screens will be able to receive data through a transmitter. That way, for example, a soldier in the desert could get info from a distant control tower, which in turn picks up data from surveillance planes tracking enemy units. The soldier could then follow nearby enemy movements on a map shown on his flexible display. Take that, Dementors!

But what about that flying car? That's coming, too -- sort of. Moller International of Davis, Calif., is a publicly traded company set up specifically to develop something called the M400 Skycar. It can travel on local roads at 35 miles per hour, but its real purpose is to take off vertically from small spaces like parking lots, then cruise at low altitudes at more than 350 mph. The price tag is a hefty $500,000. The company is hoping for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. If Moller gets the nod from the regulators, it could develop a market for the craft and build enough sales volume to warrant a lower list price (Galleons not accepted -- and Gringotts Bank is not making loans to buyers).

Books are cheaper than flying cars, even in Potterland, where library tomes have a habit of holding a reader's attention with talking and moving pictures. Back in the world of muggle science, New Zealand researchers have found a way to add detailed 3-D talking animations to books. The reader sees the 3-D images through a handheld viewer that watches where the reader is looking and plays music and narration at the same time. Its name? Magic Book. Should be required reading at Hogwarts.

By Rachel Tiplady in Paris

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