Electronic tattoos (also called e tattoos or digital tattoos) are similar to temporary tattoos for children — you get them damp, hold them to your skin, and then stick for a few days or until you rub them off.
A group of Ph.D. students from the MIT Media Lab and researchers from Microsoft Research has come up with the ultimate wearable: a temporary tattoo that can turn into a touchpad, remotely control your smartphone, or share data using NFC.
How might we wear technology in the future? How might we begin to address issues around sustainability and material waste? How might functional tattoos change the way we interact with our environment? How might people design and wear their own?
Smart Tattoos lie at the intersection of fashion, sustainability, and personalized experiences. Inspired by the Flash Tat trend around beautiful temporary tattoos, our research has sought to expand this concept further into the wearables space by augmenting it with sensing and actuation functionality. The emergence of lightweight temporary wearables is a trend we hope to inspire in the minds of people everywhere for two reasons. The first is to enable anyone to design and create their own wearable experiences unique to what they need and who they are. The second is to promote a more sustainable methodology and mindset around the future of wearable technology.
Where could it be helpful?
- As healthcare technology gets smaller and smarter, wearables such as e tattoos could minimize the ways in which essential medical devices interfere with a patient’s life.
- Most e tattoos are still in the research and development stage.
- Eventually, these devices could be less invasive than traditional methods, while also being just as accurate and reliable as current devices.
- The most obvious application is in the medical field, where a tattoo could perhaps replace a finger clip or armband heart monitor, or perhaps include chemical sensors that test blood sugar and alert the user if it gets too low.
- While children’s tattoos are simply decorative, medical tattoos can monitor important biomarkers such as heart rate, blood pressure, hydration, or blood sugar levels.
Materials in smart tattoos
An e tattoo can be made of flexible electronic components such as conductive ink that can track important information about the person wearing it. According to Carnegie Mellon University, these tattoos are made using a liquid metal alloy to print ultrathin circuits.
“This is a breakthrough in the printed electronics area,” he said. “Removing the need for high-temperature sintering makes our technique compatible with thin-film and heat-sensitive substrates.”
The paper presents three key use cases for the tattoo: you could use it to turn your skin into a trackpad, design it to change color based on temperature, or pull data from the tattoo. In one photo shared by MIT, the tattoo even includes LED lights, creating a kind of glowing display on the skin.
Digital tattoos are only possible because of new developments in 3D printing and circuit printing technologies. The Medical Futurist explained that digital tattoos can be made of materials such as gold nanorods, graphene, or various polymers with a rubber backing. When the tattoo is attached to the skin, tiny electrodes can record information about the wearer and transmit it to smartphones or other connected devices.
Just like a child’s decorative tattoo, you need to get it damp to apply to the skin. Unlike traditional medical devices, these tattoos have properties that are similar to lightweight fabrics — they conform to any shape and still work even if you bend, fold, twist, or strain them. It’s like having a smart Band-Aid, or the human body equivalent of IoT.