Mash-ups of tech with temporary tattoos are not new. Versions are currently used to measure blood alcohol levels and detect exposure to ultraviolet rays. Designers from MIT Media Lab have teamed with Microsoft Research on a project to develop “smart tats” able to interface with remote technology. They can also report on their users health and environment, essentially turning human skin into a gadget.
Others have tried to make this concept a reality, but the products proved costly, and difficult to affix to flesh. The DuoSkin difference is in the gold leaf – which brings bling to the project – and also serves as an efficient conductor. The design piggybacks on developments in body-art, specifically metallic temporary tattoos. The team turned to gold leaf because it is “robust to movements and skin deformations during motion…[and] both workable and aesthetic in appearance,” lead researcher Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao said in an interview with Quartz.
Why would you want a smart tat?
It could be used as a trackpad to remotely control your mobile phone or adjust the volume of the music you tune into. They can track user data and report back to you, like a body-integral Fitbit, with embedded thermochromic displays that change color in reaction to heat, reporting on body temperature, blood pressure, breathing patterns. It might also report on your immediate environment, checking air quality, weather conditions, and alert you to the presence of harmful substances.
Another function is wireless communication. The tattoo could include an NFC (near field communications) tag that can be read by phones or other NFC devices nearby.
Ultimately – in a future Aldous Huxley couldn’t have envisioned – this technology could serve as individual identification, subway cards, and even movie tickets.
Production is simple, say the MIT engineers. Using graphic design software, sketch the circuitry. Next, create stencils of that circuitry by layering vinyl film on thin temporary tattoo paper. Cut it with an electronic cutter, and then top it with conductive gold leaf using spray adhesive. Now the tat is reading for mounting.
DuoSkin is planted on skin using a water-transfer technique, just like any other temporary tattoo. Position the tat, press down with a damp cloth, and peel off the backing paper. Kao estimates the tools and materials to cost under $300 USD, a big investment for a tat with a one-day lifespan, but it’s sort of scalable. After the initial equipment is purchased, subsequent smart tats will cost you just for materials.
DuoSkin describes this as a “project”, not a product or prototype. Its developers will make their research available as open source, encouraging others to build upon their concept to create next-generation on-skin wearables.
Kao sees commercial potential. “There’s definitely some people who are more maker-type personalities but there’s of course people who would prefer not to do so [themselves],” Kao told Quartz. “We see this developing as a business model.”
The project will be presented at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers 2016, taking place in Heidelberg, Germany from September 12-16.
Images from DuoSkin website