How often do we go to the doctor for checkups? Even if you're a borderline hypochondriac, you would still only generate a few data points of medical history a year. Imagine the benefit for medical diagnosis and sensitivity of preventative care if we were constantly generating medical data for our physicians to use to better prescribe accurate care. A means of ridiculously convenient health monitoring is just one potential application of digital tattoos generating buzz in our digital imaginations.
Digital tattoos are a branch, or rather a pretty cool speculative application, of the larger category of flexible electronics. Flexible electronics are already being utilized in many areas of consumer products and have been allowing manufacturers of electronic devices to achieve some amount of packaging flexibility for years. With some contributions from materials science advancements, the circuit “boards” have become circuit films. Some achieve the amazing thickness of a mere temporary tattoo. These temporary tattoos are a normal circuit at a high level, but are implemented utilizing wire structures that can deform, while on a substrate so thin that it will adhere via Van der Waals forces to a human epidermis.
This image is of a “digital tattoo” developed by Motorola to interface with a smartphone.
One function of digital tattoos is a passive response from a radio signal, à la RFID dongle, which is utilized to store a unique digital code. This code is then used to perform a high tech PIN entry for such uses as unlocking smart phones and providing a personalized variation of digital payment much like the smart chips currently being rolled out in credit cards. One can imagine the usefulness of such a technology in the context of a large music festival, traveling, or any number of circumstances where keeping cash and cards secure are a worry. With increasing complexity, the function of the tattoo could be extended to identification, venue admission, smart payments, and social media networking (check-ins, acquiring contact info, etc).
As mentioned, the ability to put complex circuitry on skin is a viable option thanks to advancements in materials science and circuit printing technology. One research group at University of Illinois is experimenting with the extent of the complexity of these devices. They have demonstrated sensors that can harvest energy from the motion of body parts, provide brain-computer interfaces, allow high resolution brain mapping, and an exciting list for other applications of what they have termed “epidermal electronics.”
Epidermal electronics in place.
With all the fun speculation of what we will be able to do with this emerging technology, technically inclined cynics will have much to say about potential pitfalls. Whether there will be a black market for affluent epidermis, or simply some unhappy retail cashiers having to once again figure out how to scan a lower back butterfly-tribal; there will be an interesting evolution as this moves toward a mature and viable technology. However, going back to the music festivals… just think about the awesome LED tattoos!