Are Temporary Tattoos the Next Big Thing in Wearables?
The thought of temporary tattoos bring good memories flooding to one’s mind: throwaway pieces sporting goofy looking cartoons. Or the damp washcloths we used to press down hard on our arms, over and over again, in a bid to make them stick.
A research center at the University of California San Diego has been toying with the possibility of attaching sensors to temporary tattoos to extract data from the body. What kind of data are we looking at? Let’s take a trip through the wonderful sea of hair-raising possibilities!
These “tech tattoos” are worn exactly as your standard temporary tattoo: the sensors don’t penetrate your skin but rather sit on top of it. These sensors are capable of interacting with wireless devices like Bluetooth in order to transfer data.
The director of the research center at UCSD (University of California San Diego), Joseph Wang demonstrated at the TSensors Summit last year so as to what this ‘skin data collection technology’ can do. He said the skin serves a vital sensory purpose – it doesn’t have to be solely a part of our body but can also be the body of any other host such as a moving object or still object.
For now however, his research is focused on how human sweat can be actively used in the application of this idea. A biofuel battery integrated inside the temporary tattoo will convert sweat into energy, while a strip extracts data from that sweat to determine how your body reacts to any given exercise regimen, for example. The built-in sensors are programmed to respond to how much lactate the body produces.
When this sensor reacts with the lactate in sweat, it gives rise to an electrical signal, which is directly proportional to the volume of lactate in the sweat. So the more lactate the body produces, the stronger the signal. Pretty killer science, right?
A researcher working closely with Wang says efforts are underway to build a temporary tattoo which measures blood glucose levels. Imagine the wonderful possibilities this may entail for diabetics.
The end goal of Wang’s research is to empower consumers with a technology that’s not only inexpensive but also readily available in developing countries.
How it All Comes into Play
These temp tech tattoos and sensors can be printed at a few cents apiece, thanks to laser and screen printers.
Work is also underway at the research center to bring down the cost of these tattoos as much as possible. At the moment, these sweat-sensing tattoos are being designed to last up to about 12 hours.
Critics however, have an entirely different take on the whole affair that wearable devices are an invasive form of technology more than anything else; in order to be useful and form a synonymous part of a user’s life, they have not yet achieved desirable adoption rates.
Companies are more than ever-ready to address these issues as the cost isn’t very high to alter tattoos into a shape and design tailored for each user, rather than having to make complete changes to their entire range of products.
The real challenges manufacturers face is making the idea and concept of temporary tattoos important enough to move past the initial period of excitement enticed in users. As we speak, researchers are in high gear and the appeal of these tech tattoos has started to move beyond Wang’s research center.
San Francisco technology firm NewDealDesign came forth with a similar idea in October 2014 when asked how they envision wearable design that goes beyond the wrist. Their answer was Project Underskin – a digital tattoo integrated onto the user’s hand. The scale of interaction is impressive: exchanging data with a mere handshake, tracking blood sugar levels or unlocking doors.
The company likes to see the hand as a gateway which reveals a lot of interesting tidbits about users and where they’re coming from. Jaeha Yoo, Director of Experience Design at NewDealDesign says a high five for example, is a distinct way of human greeting as opposed to greeting someone with an open palm or closed firt. “This is where a lot of self expression happens”, he concludes.
NDD President Gadi Amit feels the sci-fi genre has narrowed down things too much to a “cyborgish” level where everything seems too cold and mechanical, too perfect and calculated, almost unable to establish a true bond with culture. The San Francisco-based technology firm predicts this is the kind of technology they imagine developing in the next few years, and wearable tattoos are going to be a major part of it.
It’s Looking Pretty Good So Far
NDD aren’t the only ones stepping up to the innovation platter. MC10 has its sight set on bringing this concept to realty – attachable “small sticker” computers are being developed which closely resemble a band-aid. MC10 has joined forces with a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to work on technologies similar to the one being researched at Wang’s research center.
Only time will tell if we’ll be swapping our clunky-looking bracelets and wrist watches with a tattoo or band-aid like ultra-sleek wearable computer capable of measuring several vital functions.
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