Electronic tattoos are a thing now, and though they look distinctly cancerous, they’re also pretty cool and you may want to try them out. Here’s everything you need to know:
Electronic tattoos fall under the widening umbrella term of Epidermal Electronics i.e. thin, flexible patches of rubber that contain electronic components that are themselves thin and flexible. Often for these electronics to function in such stretchy, movement-oriented environments they must contain silicon wires that are only nanometers thick.
Epidermal tattoos aren’t forever; they stick to the surface of the skin as opposed to being inserted deep within like tattoo ink. In this way they’re kind of similar to silly temporary tattoos that have become so fashionable lately. They adhere to the texture of the surface of your skin in such a way that they can stick firmly in place- for a few days, at least.
Also unlike tattoos (real or temporary), electronic tattoos don’t generally take a fun shape like a dragon, peace sign, Chinese letters or symbols for infinity. The point is for them to read and record your vital signs for a physician to look over later.
The technology is helping people who need constant medical monitoring to live more normal lives. Instead of being forced to stay in hospitals hooked up to equipment or lug heavy “mobile” hospital equipment around with them in public, patients can simply opt into epidermal electronics.
So who thought of this stuff? Like most amazing technological advancements, it was a group effort, but the visionary leader involved was professor John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Back in 2008 he conceived of this kind of technology and founded his electronics everywhere company MC10. He sought to make electronics more organic by creating circuits that could stretch and bend with the motions of human bodies.
The first obstacle? Silicon, the crystal base-material for computer chips. Normally rigid and brittle, silicon’s physical properties posed a major problem for any engineer that wanted to make flexible electronics. Rogers wasn’t too discouraged; he thought to arrange tiny silicon wires into coiling patterns and weave them through thin rubber patches, allowing spring-like electronic connections that could stretch and bend as necessary.
Patches can be applied to the skin using over-the-counter liquid bandage spray and run off solar power alone. It reads your vitals based on where its positioned and transfers data out to an external device, making it a member of the heavily buzzed “Internet of Things.”
The devices can monitor muscle, heart and brain activity as well as pregnancies in women and actual muscle stimulations in rats. They can even be placed inside the human heart, though this is clearly a more serious medical decision prompted by more serious medical situations.
Electronic tattoos aren’t yet covered by any insurance plan or supplied by any hospital, but Rogers believes that fact will change over the next few years. He believes his tattoos can help with rehabilitation, muscle contractions, and prosthetic limbs. Apparently patches placed on the neck can even measure neck muscles to produce what words a person is mouthing. This could restore speech to the mute and allow for silent communication between friends.
Rogers’ most ambitious goal? To “eliminate the need for surgical interventions in the first place.”