(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Fairmont Preparatory Academy

Smart Tattoos: transforming your phone into fashion

Wearable technology has deeply permeated our lives since its advent. From watches to glasses, its innovative approach to combine our daily wears with electronic devices significantly enhanced the convenience and accessibility of electronic devices.

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT have further broadened the scope of wearable technology by utilizing a form of art that seems unrelated to technology at first glance — tattoos.

According to Alvin Powell, a staff writer at Harvard University, two postdoctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School and a research team led by Katia Vega at MIT’s media lab have developed a biosensitive ink that indicates one’s health condition by changing its color. With the subtle embellishment of the ink with tattoo artistry, the team aims to overcome the shortcomings of the current biomedical monitoring devices.

Their project, called the “Dermal Abyss” utilizes a tattoo ink that indicates one’s blood constituents through the changes of color depending on the chemistry of the body’s interstitial fluid, Powell elaborated. It is especially effective in detecting the sodium and glucose concentration within the blood, thereby diagnosing diabetes or dehydration.

The team has currently tested the ink on a pigskin to observe how it changes color in response to different biomarkers. While the technology is still in its infancy, Nan Jiang and Ali Yetisen, the two leading researchers of the project, suggested the ink’s potential use as a long-lasting tattoo for chronic conditions or a temporary design for shorter-duration monitoring. They also proposed its capability to react to UV lights, when used on one’s skin in the form of a tattoo. 

In addition, the MIT Media Lab and the Microsoft Research team developed an on-skin touchpad tattoo “DuoSkin” using a thin sheet of gold. According to Quartz, the researchers used gold leaf, which is highly durable and aesthetic, to affix an interface onto one’s skin, enhancing the device’s mobility and convenience. Unlike the Dermal Abyss project, DuoSkin is a temporary tattoo through water transfer made in the form of a sticker. 

The electronic tattoo is made by sketching a circuitry with a graphic design software and applying a thin layer of vinyl film on top of the tattoo paper, which is then cut with an electronic cutter, Bhattacharya explained. The tattoo paper is then attached to a gold leaf with spray adhesives, which is followed by an intricate installation of electronics on top of the tattoo.

The researchers suggested its potential to be used as a trackpad or a button that can remotely control one’s mobile device or as a health indicator. Moreover, it can also function as a wireless communicator that can substitute various types of identification methods, such as subway cards or movie tickets. While its practical implementation has yet to be done, the researchers are highly confident of its prominence in the technology and art field in the near future. 

Although safety and privacy concerns still remain for both examples of smart tattoos, its innovative approach to further enhance the convenience of wearable technology and widen its focus to fashion will undoubtedly contribute to further developments of wearable technology.