In the not-too-distant-future, there’s a very good chance you’ll be leaving with a tattoo. No, hospitals aren’t going to resort to tattoo artistry in order to raise funds to pay for the climbing cost of healthcare. The tattoos will be electronic.
A ginormous breakthrough was recently reported in all of the major scientific publications. Science, Nature, the science blogs… you name it. Dubbed as “electronic skin,” “tattoo electronics,” and “smart skin,” whatever you call it, the technology is ridiculously cool.
A collaboration between scientists at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois is responsible for the awesomeness. They’ve developed what is basically a fully functioning, wireless computer chip that is just 40 micrometers thick and sticks to human skin without any sort of glue or adhesive.
Let’s delve into some details.
Because the wires are so thin, the material loses its rigidity and becomes flexible. It’s so light that the forces that hold molecules together – called the van der waals force – is enough to keep it attached to the skin. It’s ingenious design of snake-like ribbons of wires networked together allows the electronics to squish, expand and twist right along with the skin without breaking or missing a beat.
The design has many uses. It can act as an EEG or EMG sensor to monitor nerve and muscle activity, or a sensor to monitor brain waves, sleeping patterns and other brain functions. Current methods require sticky gel pads to be placed all over the body with long, clunky wires attached to computers and power sources. But the new electronic tattoos have all of that built in. You could walk around all day, sleep on your sofa and go for a run without even noticing that you’re wearing medical devices.
But that’s not all. When placed on the throat, it can differentiate simple words. For example, it has been proven to be able to pick up the words left, right, up and down in order to act as a simple video game controller. Add that functionality to an ALS patient or somebody paralyzed, however, and you have the potential to allow patients to interface and communicate with computers.
It can even be embedded into a temporary tattoo so that it is truly invisible. In fact, the method of application is essentially the same.
The caveats? They currently only last as long as the top layer of your skin. Once your skin cells slosh off and are replaced – usually a matter of a few days – the electronics go with it. And though their manufacture process is being built on existing technologies so that they can be mass produced in the future, current production levels are super expensive.