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I’m trying to think of a reason why an advanced civilization would find it useful to invent an invisible handheld shield as protection against a civilization with primitive weaponry (sticks, stones, nets, spears, bows and arrows).

Specifically, what advantages would an invisible shield (blocks physical objects but is invisible) be advantageous over a regular shield. Any ideas?

If I can’t come up with something plausible, I can place the invention of this shield under different circumstances but it won’t be as elegant. This shield plays a pivotal role in this civilization’s arsenal when used with a specialized weapon that is invented (ideally) many generations after the shield. (I don’t have invisible shields in my story because I think they are “cool.”)

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    $\begingroup$ We have something close to that now, its called a riot shield. $\endgroup$ – John Jul 30 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ Aside from the research time needed, what are the disadvantages of having an invisible shield? If one was affordable, it seems better in any way than a visible shield. If the enemy can't see your defended parts, they don't know where your weak spots are. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jul 31 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ I can see one disadvantage if your enemies can't see the shield, neither can you. the bearer of the shield can only feel the presence of shield but don't know if it's still functional or not, it might be broken, chipped and compromised after repeated and brutal hits, giving a false sense of security to the bearer and may break up at any time. $\endgroup$ – V.Aggarwal Jul 31 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ This concept sounds really similar to 'body shields' in the Dune series. In this the case the main benefit of invisibility is just being able to see through it, the reason the shield is invisible it because it's basically a force field. $\endgroup$ – Meg Aug 1 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ It is transparent, so the bearer has better view. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Aug 1 at 23:43

20 Answers 20

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These people want to be seen.

god and crowd

source

Your advanced people are very good looking. They spend a lot of time and energy at it. They are vain. They want the primitives to see and appreciate them. They also want their peers to see and appreciate them.

But they do not want to be hit by a rotten tomato or a poisoned dagger. The personal shield allows these folks to strut their handsome stuff and at the same time be protected from surprise attack. And also from flies, which are plentiful where the primitives live and when you brush them off you smear your makeup.

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    $\begingroup$ This should be considered the only correct answer to the question lol $\endgroup$ – cyber101 Jul 30 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I agree lol. Great pic too. $\endgroup$ – Y Mi Jul 30 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ You forgot about the Pope Mobile. He'd rather drive around behind an invisible shield than a lexan shield. And darts "magically" ricocheting off is pretty darned impressive. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 31 at 3:08
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Might even start a new religion if the technology difference is big enough. $\endgroup$ – Mast Jul 31 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast Clarke's Law? :) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Jul 31 at 17:48
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Holding a shield is like an invitation for others to throw stuff at you.

It's a pretty aggressive move actually. You're saying "I know you're violent and I'm prepared." You're telling them you're at war.

An invisible shield protects just as well as a visible one (better actually, because the attackers don't know where the shield stops and starts and can't target unprotected areas) but without the posturing.

As others have mentioned, visibility is important as well. Your vision of potential danger isn't impaired and you are seen in all your glory. It can also be a power play. "I am here, you can see I'm unarmed, and you can't harm me." For a ruler or a higher social class, this posture is invaluable. It sets you up as superior.

I also support Kepotx's answer: making the shields invisible looks like magic to outsiders. If the attackers have a pre-firearms weapon technology, a shield like this would be impossible to understand. Which only reinforces the social stratification.

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    $\begingroup$ "You're saying "I know you're violent and I'm prepared." You're telling them you're at war." I can just picture a Roman testudo formation but with invisible shields. You'll see a group of people with spears coming at you. Once arrows start bouncing off, though, that seems much more intimidating than the norma one. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jul 31 at 6:35
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Police is already widely use transparent riot shields. The reason is simple: to see through. Invisibility might be just a side-effect of super-transparent technology.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer is underrated :D. Extremely straightforward. If I were writing this, I would say that this is what the original impetus was for the design--it's extremely practical. And then these other things, like making the lessers think you are magic, were noted as a serendipitous advantage. $\endgroup$ – msouth Jul 31 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ +1 - the advantage of a transparent shield is heavily skewed toward the holder, too. The person holding the shield gets a big advantage, since they now have a much wider field of view without having to expose their head, while others get virtually no advantage - they can already pinpoint the location of someone standing behind an opaque shield, so being able to see them doesn't help them at all. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Jul 31 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ +1: Even non-transparent ballistic shields tend to have a clear viewing port. Perhaps they invented a small cloaking/invisibility device, which they then attached to a shield of the strongest material available, to create a viable hybrid - transparent, so it can be used as a riot shield, and bulletproof, so it can be used as a ballistic shield. $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Aug 2 at 12:26
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As ksbes says, invisibility is a great advantage, but there is another one.

It's magic. Or at least it seems to be magic.

any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

In this case, they don't see any shield, but still, something is blocking all projectiles, and when they try to hit them, there seems to be a wall between them and your soldiers.

Yup, definitely magic, we don't stand a chance to beat them.

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    $\begingroup$ The especially important part is the contrast - if you show up with a shield, it's something they understand. They know how to counter it, they know when to fold and abort their attack attempt. If you seem to be completely vulnerable, and something stops the attack, it's completely different. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jul 31 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ A variation on Clarke's third law is that it's also indistinguishable from godhood. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 1 at 11:43
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On top of any additional answers, two more spring to mind:

1. Undercover agents Agents working undercover within primitive civilisations may want such protection, but still need to fit in with the natives

2. Obfuscation of possible weaknesses One of the ways an opponent can find a weakness for a defense is to poke it with different things to see how it reacts. If the shield doesn't give off any kind of visible responses to stimuli, it makes this job almost impossible to perform.

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    $\begingroup$ "Obfuscation of possible weaknesses" would be even more important on an armor, where you usually try to hit the gap. Much harder if you can't see them $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Jul 30 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ Archerj's stealth suggestion is excellent. $\endgroup$ – Y Mi Jul 30 at 18:11
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Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

This argues strongly that the best thing is to have weapons and forces at hand that the enemy does not know about. It allows plausible deniability about whether one is prepared for combat or not. It allows for secret and undercover agents. It allows one to quickly transition from peaceful diplomacy to combat as needed.

An example from fiction: In Asimov's Foundation and Empire, the "trader" Lathan Devers is taken prisoner and spends most of the book gathering information from the powerful top general and capital of the galactic empire, because he appears effectively powerless. At the climax this happens (Ch. 9):

Devers snarled and reached slowly for his own gun. The lieutenant of police smiled more broadly and squeezed the contacts. The blasting line of force struck Devers' chest in an accurate blaze of destruction -- that bounced harmlessly off his personal shield in sparkling spicules of light.

Devers shot in turn, and the lieutenant's head fell from off an upper torso that had disappeared. It was still smiling as it lay in the jag of sunshine which entered through the new-made hole in the wall.

It was through the back entrance that they left.

As it turns out, the entire plot was made possible because Devers had the confidence from a personal (invisible) shield, which the men of the supposedly much more powerful galactic empire did not think was technically possible.

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    $\begingroup$ In any discussion of military strategy, Sun Tzu is always the answer. $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Jul 31 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ @CodeswithHammer Usually. Unfortunately, Chapter 14, "The Balance of Nuclear Brinkmanship and Strategic Arms Reduction", was one of the texts lost during the burning of books in 212 BCE, so we needed to rediscover those strategies in the '70s. $\endgroup$ – Ray Jul 31 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ The problem here is that in the given example, Devers is defending himself from a more powerful enemy, while in the question, the shield bearer is defending against a weaker enemy. There’s a difference in mindset here. When defending against a stronger enemy, showing the shield is worse because they will 1) view you as a greater target and 2) adapt to the defense. However, against a primitive enemy, appearing more heavily armed serves as a deterrent, making you less of a target; additionally, with limited resources comes less opportunity to adapt, so it’s nowhere near as beneficial. $\endgroup$ – Paralyzoid Jul 31 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Paralyzoid: Disagree. In the Devers example, the opposition is weaker; they just didn't know that they were. $\endgroup$ – Daniel R. Collins Jul 31 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Ray: "Chapter 14" is a common misunderstanding. It was actually a commentary on chapter 12, "Attacks by Fire", written by a contemporary of Sun Tzu. It's described as such by Sima Qian (who didn't quote the text, because, as you said, the text was already lost). $\endgroup$ – Codes with Hammer Aug 1 at 13:38
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Expend that Ammo.

Nothing like letting your opponent waste a lot of ammo (or just stamina) trying to hit you so they run out sooner. Initial reaction : "fire again, I must have missed". Next reaction : "keep firing, we can break through it". Last reaction : "Oh, oh, out of ammo". :-)

Confuse me.

You fire, they should be a mushy pool on the floor and wall and they're just standing their grinning at you, or, a little worse, beating twelve kinds of heck out of you. It's got to confuse a body. Always an advantage in combat.

Hit me, Baby.

A shield is an offensive weapon and experiencing being repeatedly hit by something invisible isn't just confusing, it, well, hurts. You can't really see it to defend so a skilled attacked can beat the stuffing out of an opponent with their invisible shield. And in case you object to this, keep in mind that relativity says there's no fundamental difference between something hitting the shield and the shield hitting something.

Throwing a shield is kinda silly, but it's an option and in this case your opponent can't see to dodge it and can't see to pick it up.

Showing off to the Natives.

If nothing else it's going to be impressive having an invisible shield and it is going to make them ask a rather important question : has he any other stuff that's invisible, like a bloody huge gun or several mates standing nearby armed to the teeth ? So a lot easier to be diplomatic when people are thinking important things like that.

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  • $\begingroup$ How is it going to be impressive? You can't see it, you just see a dude. He's got an invisible shield, you find out after you start fighting him, bit of a shock, but of course if you do this a lot, and one assumes primitives do, you simply use the nets the OP mentioned. Invisible shield? Net and a spear. Where is the invisible shield? You'll show me, or die with my spear in your guts. You step back, I fling the net. You push forward, I know where the shield is, you might as well have painted it. I can see your arm! $\endgroup$ – chiggsy Aug 1 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Also, how good are you hand to hand anyway? I kinda think a guy fighting with an invisible shield has to be counting on that first counterstroke, catch me by surprise and gut me, right? So I'm raging now because you are not a warrior, you are a murderer! As for the hidden weapon angle,again because of invisibility I just see a dude standing like a noob, wide open on one side. who inexplicably did not roast me with his magic, but just made his shield invisible, I call in the lads with some nets and ... well you know how it goes. Shoulda used your laser or whatever, for sure I run from that! $\endgroup$ – chiggsy Aug 1 at 14:02
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Because it is invisible by design. Bullets, for example, are invisible by design and we don't really care to make them visible. There are exceptions of course, like tracing bullets and laser pointer thingies but it has not become a norm.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to answer something akin to this: Make their invisibility a side effect of their design rather than the point. Perhaps it was decided that force-field shields (which happen to be invisible/transparent) were better because they're less bulky and easier to stow when not in use. $\endgroup$ – DanDoubleL Aug 1 at 13:16
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Trust

Your advanced civilisation wants to build a relationship with these primitives. Not being able to clearly see the advanced civilisation might make the primitive people slow or impossible to trust the advanced ones.

The invisible shield helps them appear less threatening while easily being able to go amongst the primitives without worrying about a sudden knife in the back (as others have pointed out)

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Warfare was not its initial purpose.

The shield was created for more mundane reasons: exploring places that are dangerous or destructive to expensive machinery (not initially for use by people), or for something like deep underwater tourism / exploration / etc, or for medical professionals interacting with contagious but benign patients, or the other way around, to protect others from quarantined individuals, or both. Industrial uses galore. Perhaps it was invented by an idealist (like Gatling) to prevent or discourage war atrocities. The mundane applications of such tech are limitless.

Also, the passage of time makes incremental improvement likely, so simple industrial / medical / whatever use in a limited capacity refined to individual full-body super frightening power is not only feasible, but real.

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Due to the energy field technology that makes them, the shields are invisible, nearly impenetrable, and very light.

The invisibility allows the user to see through it, increasing visibility.

Nearly impenetrable is obviously a good thing for a shield.

The low weight allows the user to quickly react in a fight.

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    $\begingroup$ Your eyes need to be protected, but not blocked. And if you’re humanoid, the brain is awfully close to the eyes. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Jul 30 at 21:42
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In addition to reasons cited in other answers, particularly visibility, your advanced civilization uses laser-type weapons. An invisible shield, by definition, allows visible light to pass through unhindered, without reflecting or absorbing any of it. This means that your soldiers can protect themselves completely from solid projectiles, while having full freedom to blast away with lasers.

One might add an additional detail that the shields can be customized to allow only certain EM frequencies through. Against primitive foes with projectile weapons this isn't so necessary, but the shields might have been designed with other laser-wielding enemies in mind. For instance, if the enemy is known to use laser weapons in a certain range of x-ray frequencies, the shields could be modulated to still allow visible light through, while reflecting enemy fire. You might have your soldiers remarking to each other that it's so much less stressful dealing with low-tech enemies--no worrying about whether you've got your shield set correctly.

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None of the answers given so far touch the actual matter, except the hint at deception in Daniels.

If you go into combat, your enemy will seize you up. In fact, trained warriors do this to you even before combat is initiated. They will judge your strength, size and pose, what your movement tells about your training and of course your weapons, armour and shields.

There is a similar question about an invisble sword. Like the weapon, your primary advantage will be that the enemy cannot properly judge it. Initially, if you are trained to hold it in an inconspicuous way, he will not even know that you have a shield and believe you are stupid to leave your left flank so open. That initial surprise when his first blow hits the shield can already end the fight right then and there.

But even if he understands you are holding an invisible shield, from hitting it or from your pose and movement, he does not know where exactly in space it is at any given moment and which size and shape it is. That makes it incredibly difficult to do any of the typical maneuvers against shields that are aimed at hitting just above/under/around it.

Since one of your civilizations is advanced, all this comes into play not in regular battle, which I envision will be short, bloody and very, very one-sided as the spear-wielding savages charge into energy barriers, automated laser barrages and what-else. But wars have not been won on open battle fields for centuries. You need to take the cities, and the close-quarters of a city make melee weapons an actual threat even to an advanced civilization. If 20 savages rush you from across the street, can you really cut them all down before they reach your side, or will you have to fall back to melee combat for the surviving three?

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It's useful to counter a surprise attack. If the shield is invisible then a major piece of your defence is unseen by the enemy, possibly drawing out an attack where one may not have been attempted had they not known the shield was there/active.

Every edge you can get on the battlefield is one to be taken and maximised.

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Due to expense or power consumption or whatever, not everyone can have a shield. Because of this, it's worth the extra effort to make them invisible so that the primitives don't know who isn't protected.

During early contact with a group, the advanced civilization makes sure that practically everyone is protected and attacks are dealt with very harshly. Thereafter, shields are only used in high-risk situations. The natives will not try to attack after the first few attempts are "all pain, no gain". Why waste effort attacking an invulnerable, vengeful opponent. Even if they figure out at some point that not everyone has an invisible shield it's a great deterrent knowing that your sacrifice may well be for nothing.

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The attackers are unaware of the violence they perpetrate.

Having a visible shield causes them to abruptly become aware of their violent nature, and then they either massively increase their violence or they face themselves, resulting in disillusion, shame and self-hatred.

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In general, an invisible shield would give you a significant advantage in any hand-to-hand combat. Any form of cover, shielding or protection will obstruct your ability to see your enemy (at least to some degree). The more 'force' you have to protect against, the thicker your shield needs to be, and the less you'll be able to see through it, around it or whatever.

Even a plastic shield (like some police forces use) affects your vision a small amount. Likewise wearing goggles can do as well, and both only offer relatively low levels of protection. You can definitely see best when your vision is entirely unobstructed. You can't do that hiding behind a wall, or a steel shield - which is what your enemy has to do because they don't have the invisible technology you do. You can bring your weapons to bare, and can time their release accurately, where your enemy cannot.

Lastly, a completely portable, invisible shield would mean you could wear it all the time - thus thwarting any surprise attacks, and in fact, making you impervious to ambush attacks or "milkshake throwing", "egging" or any other form of protest.

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I can see it being valuable if:

  • they're at war with the natives
  • they're vastly outnumbered by the natives, and can't afford to expose themselves even for a moment to strike back, lest they be hit by a stray bolt from the constant shower of arrows or spears or rocks or whatever
  • they depend on light-based weapons for offense, and need to be able to shoot through their shields
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If we are talking about an energy based field, then its shape and size could potentially be altered on the fly and also have its own processing capability to allow it to be extremely efficient.

For example, it could see the incoming angle of an attack and change its geometry so that instead of the kinetic energy being absorbed by you, it alters its geometry to make a straight on hit a glancing blow. It would also throw enemies off balance when the force they expected to bear down on you, is suddenly moving laterally.

It could also include AI that could anticipate how its going to be used, like bridging a large hole in the ground or gap in terrain as you cartwheel over the spot.

It could be extended over bystanders, left hanging to seal a doorway or canyon path, Be linked with other's as a defense against fire, lava, or bad weather in general.

As to the question of why it would be necessary, any potential use could explain it's original intent. I get a sense, however, that it is not militaristic in origin and is more of a wilderness survival tool than anything else. This is due to an assumption that as a civilization advances technologically, they become less likely to use violence.

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So you need shields to be invisible for some plot point, that's fine. They can be so 'accidentally' or 'on purpose'.

Easy mode: It's invisible because that's how the technology already works.
Your personal shields (and why not, the vehicle- and building-sized ones too) don't naturally produce any visible indication that they're operating. Maybe they're a contact hazard and civilians are legally required to carry some warning device, but the shield itself is undetectable without special equipment.

More elaborate: It's invisible after much effort to suppress side effects.
The first generations of shield tech had severe practical obstacles to personal use, like glowing blindingly bright if you try to move around while it's switched on, or the force field is reflective. It was only after years of development that the technology was refined to eliminate the nuisances enough for shields to become a reasonable personal defense option.

This approach makes invisibility a conspicuous feature of energy shield tech that is easier to tie into narratives since everyone familiar with the technology knows it's see-through on purpose. More so if all the kinks aren't worked out yet; you can have a shield malfunction at an embarrassing moment and upset someone's apple cart.

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