Research involving microscopic crystals has prompted the theory that walls could be built using materials which homeowners could render transparent at will.

Such a discovery would revolutionise 21st-century building techniques. Contractors would be able to study pipes and wires behind the brickwork; police and soldiers would be able to spot dangers lurking behind walls.

Today scientists at Imperial College in London and the University of Neuchatel, in Switzerland, will unveil their latest attempt to achieve this vision.

Details of the mechanism were being closely guarded last night. However, an invitation to hear more about the project revealed tantalising hints.

A briefing note headed “New material developed to see through solid matter” said: “Researchers have created a new optical effect that means that solid objects, such as walls, could one day be rendered transparent.”

The effect is believed to involve the development of a material that exploits the way atoms in matter move.

Imperial College yesterday confirmed that a small but triumphant step had been taken in the laboratory, bringing mankind closer to the day when others can share Superman’s powers. The answer is not to provide people with x-ray vision but to make the buildings see-through.

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A college spokesman: “The breakthrough has been done using crystals that are not visible to the naked eye under specific conditions. The potential applications of it are exciting and far-reaching, but it’s still very early days.”

Nevertheless, American military scientists are also working on developing devices which can see through existing structures.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a system called Visi Building which, researchers hope, will see through entire buildings to show the floor plan, occupants and other materials. Researchers envisage soldiers driving past a building — or airmen flying above it — in order to capture an image similar to an x-ray.

Japanese scientists have already — to an extent — turned fantasy into reality. Two years ago Susumu Tachi, a professor of computer science and physics at the University of Tokyo, unveiled an “invisibility cloak” similar to the garment used by Harry Potter, the fictional boy wizard, to conceal himself.

Tachi’s cloak appears to make the wearer’s torso vanish, revealing the scene behind. It works by using a camera to film what is going on behind the wearer and then transmitting the scene to the front of the cloak, which acts like a screen.

Experts claimed that to make an invisibility cloak work successfully would require six stereoscopic cameras and a garment containing more than 10m hyperpixels to provide the display.