We all know that wearable gadgets have evidently become a part of the mainstream technology and we have also seen how Biohacking implants modify a human body like nothing else. However, there is a concept that lies somewhere between wearables and Biohacking which is “Electronic Tattoos” or “Biotech Tattoos”.
These tattoos are epidermal electronics or thin, flexible patches of rubber containing equally flexible electronic components in the form of silicon wires measuring a few nanometers in thickness. These are much similar to the tattoos that we used to find in the bubblegum wrappers as kids, however, these adhere to the skin in a different way. The electronic tattoos look like circuitry-filled stickers, which collect vital information of the body to monitor the health of the wearer.
Electronic Tattoo (Image Courtesy: newscientist.com)
Emergence of the Concept, Present, and Future
The concept was coined due to the realization that wearables require a lot of fitments like suction cups, belts or battery packs that one needs to carry in order to monitor their health. Thus, the idea was to minimize the equipment and come up with something which simply stays on the skin and communicates to the device.
Back in the year 2008, Dr. John A. Rogers from the University of Illinois founded “electronics everywhere” company. With his academic background in both applied physics and chemical engineering, he aimed to bridge the gap between man and machine by making electronics more organic. He created technology that could be bent and conformed to our bodies in motion.
But the question was how to make electronics flexible, stretchable and bendable; the answer was silicon. Interestingly, silicon is used to make the brittle computer chips that power our high-tech lives. Roger and his team arranged tiny silicon wires in coiling patterns and wove them through slender rubber patches. When the coils expand, silicon contracts and all the functional parts of the device from the sensors and antennae are linked to the LED lights.
For example, in order to measure EEG, a patch is attached to the forehead with the help of a liquid bandage spray and then it collects the vitals which are transferred to an external device. The earlier models used a wired connection between the patch and computer but Rogers’ team is working on Wi-Fi and network compatibility.
Electronic Patch developed by Dr. A Rogers (Image Courtesy: Sun-Times)
Initially, electronic tattoos were used for monitoring muscles, heart and brain activity which then expanded to pregnancy monitoring in humans and muscle stimulation in rats. And now Rogers has developed the technology to be used beneath the skin by making use of a balloon catheter inserted into the human heart.
Even though these tattoos haven’t yet become a common trend, Rogers envisions a future where epidermal electronics would be responsible for streamlining prosthetic limbs and make people with immobile legs walk through muscle contractions. Once, one of Rogers’ researchers planted an electronic device on his neck to use his muscle movements in order to control a computer game. It is believed that one day, such patches could pick up on the muscular movements of speech and give voice to the mutes.
The same can be applied to the concept of robotic exoskeletons and one day this would completely fill the gap between man and machine. However, before all of our bodies turn into video game controllers, Rogers first aims to eliminate the surgical procedures and utilise the concept of tattoos instead.
Electronic Tattoos Prototypes So Far…
As wearables are being evolved into stick-ons and temporary tattoos, it is believed that the same is going to give way to implantables and invisibles. These tattoos are light-weight, cost less, easy to apply/remove and can make you feel like a “Cyborg”. Till date, various efforts have been made to develop the concept.
Discussed below are some of these prototypes and projects featuring amazing capabilities:
Tattio Project from Microsoft Research and MIT’s Media Lab (Image Courtesy: pinterest.com)
Tattio is a project from Microsoft Research and MIT’s Media Lab which uses conductive fabric tape, curvy wires, and imitation gold leaf metal. It could act as an NFC tag denoting one's digital identity and secondly, it can be coupled with LEDs and vibration motors to act like a smartwatch.
It’s available at USD 1.50 per unit and is easy-to-remove and lasts for the whole day. The prototype that was tested worked with a smartphone app and displayed an image as well as text when brought close to the tattoo.
Alcohol Monitoring Tattoo:
Alcohol Monitoring Tattoo developed at University of California (Image Courtesy: king5.com)
One of the recent efforts in the field of tattoos was made at the University of California where tattoos were designed to measure the level of alcohol in the blood in a quick, inexpensive, and non-invasive way, thereby eliminating the use of breathalyzers. These tattoos have been developed by Electrical and Computing Engineer Patrick Mercier and Nonoengineer Joseph Wang.
They printed tattoo paper with electrodes which then generated a current and a flexible electronic board. Besides, there was also a thin gel strip on the board which induced sweat on the skin and an electrochemical sensor was there to measure the concentration of alcohol. Followed by this the tech tattoos sent the information to a smartphone via Bluetooth. These are disposable and each of them takes just a few cents to make.
Facial Expression Reading Tattoos:
Facial Reading Expression Tattoo created at Tel Aviv University (Image Courtesy: wearable.com)
This tattoo, created by Professor Yael Hanein at the Tel Aviv University, is able to read the wearer’s facial expressions and emotions by making use of a carbon electrode and conductive polymer coating on an adhesive surface.
It analyses the electrical signals received from the muscles in the face and could be used by anyone including researchers, pollsters, advertisers, etc. The tattoo also carries a medical application whereby it can be used on the patients suffering from brain damage or brain stroke to measure their muscle activity, thereby avoiding the need for a bunch of electrodes fitted all over their body.
Fitness Tracking Tattoos:
Tech Tat by Chaotic Moon (Image Courtesy: wired.co.uk)
An Austin-based company named Chaotic Moon has come up with electro-conductive ink so as to connect the advanced fitness sensors pressed against the skin of the wearer. The aim is to monitor the heart rate and other vital signs of the wearer. The user can even send the collected information to his/her doctor in every 6 or 12 months.
Coming to its applications, it has a lot of potential. For example, it can be used as an authentication device while making payments or by the soldiers in the battlefields.