Now you see it—now you don’t. The most famous magician’s trick of all: making something disappear. It’s also a trick that’s driven a lot of scientific research over the centuries, and inspired it’s share of fictional treatments, too. I think my favourite is still H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (the Chevy Chase movie inspired by it was also a guilty pleasure, though), but James Bond’s car in Die Another Day and the invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter books would be pretty cool, too.

Or would they? And how close are things like that to becoming a reality?

There have been at least three announcements of scientific discoveries involving invisibility within the past month. One came from a team from Singapore who created a box of special transparent materials in a precise configuration that can redirect light and hide whatever’s inside the box while appearing to be see-through. Scientists from the University of Toronto unveiled a system involving small antennae that create magnetic interference and prevent radar from producing a return from the shielded object. And a group from the University of Texas have produced a kind of cloak material that might be almost as usable as Harry Potter’s except, so far, it only makes things invisible to microwaves, not visible light.

In spite of the effort poured into it, how useful would invisibility really be? Yes, spies might love it, and soldiers on the battlefield—if there weren’t so many other ways of detecting people and objects. You can envision invisible police speed traps. Or private detectives on a stakeout. Or cat burglars in buildings without motion detectors, I suppose. Or nudist colonies in the middle of a city, for that matter. We could imagine that, if invisibility shields were reasonably available they might be desired by criminal elements for bordellos, crack houses, or floating crap games. Naturally every secret government agency worth its salt would want invisible headquarters. The U.S. President’s Air Force One and Marine One would benefit from real stealth technology.

But think about it further. Whether a criminal operation or a government one, actual invisibility wouldn’t make sense. Suddenly there are empty lots all over the place where there used to be buildings? Not very subtle. No, fixed objects like buildings would benefit more from truly effective projections of false facades. Disguises yes, invisibility no. Even James Bond’s car wasn’t truly invisible—it was made to blend chameleon-like into the background behind it.

As I put my mind to this, one of the most likely applications of invisibility technology in the future might well be to hide the wealthy. In fifty years from now, perhaps, the “gated community” of today will have become the invisible community, with the richest of the rich relying on the premise of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Unless the wealthy, like the nudists, just can’t resist the urge to show it off.