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Ready for your electronic tattoo?

Mike Elgan | March 17, 2014
Electronic tattoos are the ultimate wearable computer. There's no telling what a patch of electronics stuck to your body somewhere and connected wirelessly to a smartphone can do once app developers get involved.

The electronic tattoo revolution is coming about because of the development of miniature and flexible electronics. In fact, development of flexible electronics has been in the works for decades. Most consumer electronics, from phones to digital cameras, contain circuits that are flexible in order to bend circuit boards for the purpose of cramming everything into a tiny space. But in recent years, it's become increasingly possible to create flexible circuits that can roll, stretch and, most importantly, flex repeatedly without failing.

What are electronic tattoos for?

Researchers envision all kinds of medical applications for electronic tattoos. For example, extremely precise thermometers that can track tiny fluctuations in body temperature and set off alarms when the level goes above or below a set threshold. Because they're so thin and flexible, a thermometer patch could be worn for months.

In a few years, it's likely that a single, inexpensive rubber patch, attached to the chest of a patient or even a newborn baby will monitor a wide range of vital signs including heart rate, nutritional status, body temperature, hydration and breathing rate.

This is where most of us will encounter electronic tattoos. Slapping an electronic tattoo on patients to monitor vital signs will probably become widespread in healthcare.

But there are other applications for this idea beyond the doctor's office.

Google, for example, has specific patents for an electronic tattoo that functions as a lie detector. There's also a throat tattoo that conveys sounds from the throat to a smartphone or other connected device. The idea might be useful as a microphone for talking in a noisy environment.

A company called Electrozyme makes electronic tattoos that appear to target athletic performance. They can measure lactate levels, which show how much muscle fatigue is happening. The patch can detect pH values on the skin, which shows hydration levels, and other metrics of clear value to athletes. Imagine an entire pro football team wearing such patches and the medical staff monitoring their vitals and making recommendations to the coach to prevent burnout and injury.

Electronic tattoos are the ultimate wearable computer. There's no telling what a patch of electronics stuck to your body somewhere and connected wirelessly to a smartphone can do once app developers get involved.

It will start out with primarily medical uses, then evolve into a cyborg-like capability of melding human flesh with electronic sensors and communication.

The real revolution is flexible electronics

The astonishing fact about electronic tattoos is that they're only one byproduct of the flexible electronics revolution.

It will enable other good things. One will be smart clothing. Electronics built into pants, shoes, shirts and jackets will bring wearable computing into our clothing. Google's Android chief, Sundar Pichai, recently used the example of a "smart jacket" when talking about the possibilities of the wearables software development kit he was announcing.

 

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