Once reserved for outliers and rebels, tattoos have become mainstream in the United States. According to a survey from recently, 21% of all Americans now have at least one tattoo. And, among the 18-29 demographic, this number is rising to 40%. If that number sounds quite high, just wait until tattoos transform from aesthetic statements to biomedical digital devices. What if markings on our skin could unlock our phone or get us access to entrance doors? What if they could measure our blood pressure or our levels of hydration all the time, alerting us in case of values out of the normal range?
Digital tattoos could act as mini laboratories, rendering our skin an interactive display, and making healthcare more invisible simultaneously. Here, we will talk about the latest trends and research efforts to make this happen.
- The development of smart tattoo ink – digital tattoos.
In this time of medical devices’ development, one general trend appeared. This trend is tools getting more miniaturized, digitalized, and connected than ever. While in the past, the principal goal of medical instruments was measuring health parameters, or recording measurements, right now, the question is how to measure more accurately, easily, and simply with the use of aptly designed means.
But, the triumphant march of health sensors doesn’t stop at creating tinier, and more streamlined smartwatches or clothing clips. The following frontier for technological advancement definitely takes us very close to the human body. Seamless, small and unrecognizable sensors made of flexible materials appear first interwoven with our clothes. However, then they appear on our skin as digital tattoos.
Researchers at MIT and Harvard developed “smart tattoo ink” which can monitor changes in biological and health conditions. This ink could measure when the blood sugar of diabetics rises too high, or the hydration of an athlete falls too low.
Pairing bio-sensitive inks with the traditional tattoo designs would be excellent. These smart tattoos could provide real-time feedback on different medical conditions. Moreover, they could raise a lot of ethical questions. One such question is what happens when your health information gets essentially worn on your sleeve, available for everyone to see?
For instance, in sports medicine, there are already digitalized garments for improving performance. Moreover, researchers are working in nanotechnology, and are experimenting with exceptionally micro-sized robots. These robots literally swim through our bodily fluids. The FDA has also approved the first digital pill with a digital ingestion tracking system in 2017.
- What do we call a digital tattoo?
We already mentioned that MIT and Harvard researchers developed smart tattoo ink. This ink is capable of monitoring health by changing color. This ink will tell diabetics if their blood sugar rises or athletes if they are dehydrated.
The work that two postdoctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School conducted, together with colleagues led by Katia Vega at the Media Lab of MIT, paired bio-sensitive inks developed at Harvard with traditional artistry.
With the development of 3D printing and circuit printing technologies, some flexible materials and electronics are also possible. These materials and electronics apply the so-called digital or electronic tattoos on the skin for several days or weeks. Some researchers use gold nanorods, other various polymers with rubber backing or graphite, to apply the tattoo on the skin. In this way, they prevent causing irritation. Certain experts also believe that these skin patches or tattoos are just the start. In the future, other skin techniques like henna, makeup, or tanning will also be tested.
These flexible and waterproof materials impervious to twisting and stretching will be in a couple with electrodes. In this way, they will be able to record and transmit information about the wearer to smartphones or other devices. That is why fantasies about digital tattoos unlocking tablets, supporting border crossing or opening doors took off. For instance, in 2014, Motorola Corporation launched the digital tattoo for the identification of its Moto C handset. This digital tattoo sticker unlocks smartphones without the need for patterns of passwords.
The small patches will be able to measure electrophysiological parameters. In this way, they could allow healthcare experts to monitor and diagnose critical health conditions. Such conditions may be heart arrhythmia, sleep disorders, heart activities of premature babies, and brain activities.
Furthermore, by tracking vital signs 24 hours a day digital tattoos will follow patients with high risks of stroke. Digital tattoos could even send alerts to medical systems. They might even call the ambulance and transmit pertinent data as well.
In the future, small multifaceted patches might even track muscle movements around speech. This will happen if they are applied to the throat. In this way, they will transform tattoos into half of a wireless hands-free kit. Since you aren’t supposed to speak out loud, it could pick up sub-vocal commands as well.
Alternatively, the well-designed, figurative or non-figurative electronic tattoos may track brain signals. They may track it with enough accuracy to control a computer or other devices. But, that is still the distant future. There are a lot of research efforts and projects which already made digital tattoos happen.