Scientific skinful – health and electronic tattoos
- THE AUSTRALIAN
- JULY 17, 2014
THESE days were used to seeing the extensively tattooed bodies of our pop stars, footballers and Olympians.
In a couple of years, these stars could also be wearing tattoos of a much more advanced sort. Electronic tattoos on different areas of their bodies will collect data about their heartbeat, muscular output, breathing and hydration levels.
And it may be possible for coaches to know at an instant the condition of any player on the ground in real time.
Indeed, the human body may soon mimic the modern car, which uses on-board computers to monitor engine performance and diagnose problems.
Technology journalists invariably are asked to predict “the next big thing” in tech. While wearable devices such as the iWatch and Google’s when-will-they-ever-sell-it Glass spectacles are hotly anticipated, my money is on electronic tattoos. They will profoundly enhance our personal capabilities, and monitor everything about our bodies.
By electronic tattoos, I mean ultra-thin slices of plastic or rubber that encase tiny silicon wires, sensors, radios, cameras and even electricity generating cells. These tattoos stick to your skin like a Band-Aid and are typically temporary, lasting three to five days.
Mankind has all the building blocks to make this technology possible: nanotechnology, flexible electronics and displays that can move with the skin’s surface, tiny sensors that not only monitor the environment and human movement but also analyse body fluids and functions. The 3-D printers that create the tiny circuits individualise the technology and help make it affordable.
Do electronic tattoos go beyond what wearable activity devices such as a Jawbone Up and Fitbit flex offer? Completely. They offer no discomfort to wear. And by sitting on the skin, they can detect, interact with and analyse all kinds of bodily fluids and muscle movements — to a degree that a worn device cannot. Instead of walking around wards with a swag of monitoring devices, patients in post-operative care could wear several tattoos that monitor bodily functions.
Small tattoos on the scalp could monitor the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient or heart irregularities in a premature baby. Equally, when applied to the forehead, they could detect sunburn and warn the wearer to don sunscreen.
Some tattoos are autonomous while others are worn underneath a smartwatch that transmits data from them.
Others involve tiny circuits using the glucose and oxygen in the body or harnessing biochemical ingredients in sweat to produce electricity to power them, and solar-powered epidermal electronics.
In the US, the start-up Electrozyme is piloting electronic tattoos with electro-chemical sensors that can gauge levels of muscular exertion and fatigue, hydration and sweat, and can assess the breakdown of amino acids in contracting muscles.
Electrozyme chief executive Joshua Windmiller says he has worked on an epidermal biosensor that would help to identify and reduce the severity of battlefield injuries, with US Office of Naval Research support. Defence applications are obvious.
Another firm, MC10, says it aims to redefine the interface between electronics and the human body. MC10, founded in 2008 by University of Illinois professor John Rogers, and Reebok have developed a skullcap for athletes called Checklight that uses multiple sensors to detect the severity of blows to the head during play. It can help decide whether it is unsafe for a player to continue.
MC10 is delving deep into the world of stretchable electronics with smart catheters that have nanometre-thin sensors, hydration sensors and comfortable, non-invasive tattoos that can monitor a baby’s temperature and vital signs. It is seeking to develop stretchable, skin-friendly cosmetic stickers that monitor skin properties while you sleep and can recommend when you need moisturiser.
On its website, MC10 says a tattoo can trigger a phone call to remind you to apply it.
In the past two years, Rogers has investigated harvesting and storing electrical power from motions of the heart, lung and diaphragm; biodegradable batteries; injectable, cellular-scale opto-electronics; and wireless, implantable LEDs and sensors.
In consumer electronics, Google is researching electrical tattoo technology after acquiring Motorola Mobility in 2012.
Google recently sold some of Motorola’s assets to Chinese computer firm Lenovo for $US2.9 billion ($3.1bn), but that did not include most of its 17,000 Motorola-acquired patents and Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects labs, which have been investigating electronic tattoos.
Last November Motorola Mobility filed a patent in the US for an electronic skin tattoo with an embedded microphone worn over the throat. The tattoo would be capable of picking up the user’s voice and transmitting it to a phone, gaming device or tablet.
It’s not hard to imagine a user with a throat tattoo issuing voice commands to a phone in their pocket, or for the tattoo to read language that is mouthed in the throat but not spoken.
In future, two people with throat tattoos might conduct a conversation without even talking, in an electronically induced form of telepathy.
A less ambitious Motorola-Google project carried out with digital development company Vivalink has come to fruition.
Vivalink sells a stick-on digital tattoo that lets a user unlock a phone by tapping it against the tattoo on, say, their arm. It’s basically a near-field communication receptor and connects to the Moto X smartphone. It is more primitive than many electronic tattoo concepts, but it is in the market, selling for $9.99.
All futuristic technology comes with a potentially sinister side. Secretly implanted circuits with GPS that monitor your location, or with a tiny microphone that eavesdrops, or that acts as a lie detector by monitoring your body’s reaction to questions, are some. The closer technology gets to you, the more invasive it can be.
Electronic tattoos are the next step on a long road that will take wearable tech from clip-on activity monitors and smart watches through to epidermal electronics and then to implanted nanotechnology that could mimic brain activity, allowing paralysed people to move once again.
For many of us, the first steps in this journey towards “the next big thing” will be more than enough. After that, you may not wish to know what “the next big thing” is.
* * *
“The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast,
so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave,
to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads,
so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark,
which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.”
(Revelation 13:15-17, NIV 2011)