Electronic skin just got a major upgrade.
Image: Donghee Son
Last we checked in with e-tattoos, Google (through Motorola) had patented electronics that would exist on or just beneath your skin in an effort to make voice-controlled devices more accurate, monitor your heartbeat, and that sort of thing. Now, the things are real and can store and transmit data, thanks to researchers at Korea’s Center for Nanoparticle Research.
In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, the team described its "electronic skin," which can be used to create “bio-integrated systems with optimized performance of data storage, diagnostics, and drug delivery functionality in stretchable formats.”
Why would we want to wear electronic skin, you might ask? Even a Fitbit or Nike FuelBand is, for lack of a better phrase, annoying to wear—you’ve got to clip it to you or wear it on your wrist. They’re lacking a certain comfort that comes with wearing something like a temporary tattoo. That’s what the Korean researchers, led by Donghee Son, were able to create.
“Although conventional monitoring devices capture compelling physiological data, the form factor of existing devices restrict seamless integration with the skin, giving rise to wearability challenges and signal-to-noise limitations,” he wrote.
Here's what the thing looks like. Image: Nature
The problem with e-tattoos so far has been powering them and allowing them to do long-term data storage. The advancement of nanotechnology, however, has allowed researchers to create e-tattoos that use less power and are finally able to store data.
Powering the thing is still a problem—Son’s e-tattoos are connected to an external power source worn on the body (say, a battery placed in your pocket), but the data storage problem has been solved by using what’s known as resistive random access memory (RRAM), created using exceedingly small nanomembranes. For the first time, e-tattoos can actually store and use information.
That’s a big deal, because it opens up new possibilities for the usefulness of e-tattoos, especially in diagnostics and drug delivery. Instead of sticking one on so that you can use Bluetooth to connect the vibrations of your throat with your phone for better voice-command clarity, we can imagine a scenario where e-tattoos are used to trigger the release of drugs into the bloodstream or something like that.
Similar to the nanovolcano concept shown a few months ago, such devices could be useful for people with chronic conditions. In fact, Son even designed a wearable skin patch that could automatically deliver drugs when necessary and tested it on pigs.
Wearable tattoos will also be better at detecting tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, perhaps giving us insights into what triggers an episode or causes tremors to worsen.
Until these things can completely power themselves, they’re going to remain impressive pieces of equipment in the lab that aren’t measurably better than anything we already have. But if we can solve that problem, we might be looking at the dawn of a new industry.