16 August 2012

Wetwired: technology under your skin

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Electronic tattoos powered by your own blood? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, and could free us from the need to carry technology like mobile phones by having it embedded.
Electronic tattoo

John Roger's start-up company, mc10, is racing to perfect human-integrated technology with ultra-flexible electronic circuits worn on the skin. Credit: John Rogers

“EXCUSE ME, my arm is ringing.” It may sound like an odd phrase, but it’s one that could become common in a future where digital tattoos allow you to make phone calls, send email and do most else your smartphone can. Fuelled by the oxygen and glucose from a nearby artery, these tattoos would use inked buttons and a wireless silicon panel tucked unobtrusively between skin and muscle to do the trick.

That was the future envisioned by Jim Mielke, an entrant in the Greener Gadgets Design Competition in New York in 2008. Mielke’s submission didn’t win, defeated by more ho-hum competitors like a do-it-yourself energy meter and a gravity-powered floor lamp. But his loss may signal that visions of a ‘wetwired’ cyborg future seem less innovative and more inevitable with every passing day.

Already it appears we can hardly be parted from our smartphones for more than a heartbeat. In 2010, the Pew Research Centre in the U.S. found that 83% of people aged 18–29 sleep with their phone beside them. Yet in the near future, the very notion of carrying around your indispensable data connection in a chunk of plastic, prone to loss and theft, may soon join the ranks of such old-timey practices as owning a full set of encyclopaedias or looking up a plumber in the telephone directory.

In March 2012, the Nokia Research Centre was granted a patent for ‘haptic communication’, in essence a tattoo that vibrates when your mobile receives an incoming call or text message. The patent proposes everything from actual tattoos – ‘ferromagnetic powder’ injected beneath the skin and activated – to a thin film or label temporarily attached to the skin’s surface. In either case, a magnetic field from an external device, such as a phone or a tablet, stimulates the material to transmit digital information in the form of pulses and tingles.

Nokia won’t reveal any details of how serious it is about the development for consumer use, and it’s uncertain whether a device has even been built to test the concept. But even if Nokia is just covering its bases, the haptic tattoo is a tantalising glimpse of what could be waiting just around the corner.

“I am absolutely a massive fan of this patent,” says Christine Satchell, human–computer interaction researcher at Queensland University of Technology’s Urban Informatics research lab in Brisbane, Australia.

Satchell, a self-described technological utopianist, sees Nokia’s move as a first step towards ridding ourselves of the external carriers of technology, or artefacts, and the beginning of a more intuitive relationship with the virtual world.

“I honestly think this one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time, primarily because – and I know I’m not alone – of the consistent loss of my phone,” she says. “Not even long-term loss, but just the short term ‘Where is it? Where has it gone? It was here a minute ago.’ The idea of it being embedded into my actual, physical body would take away that annoyance.”

Ashley Holmes, a new-media digital artist and human–computer symbiosis researcher at Central Queensland University in Mackay, was immediately reminded of sci-fi writer William Gibson’s ‘derms’.

In Gibson’s groundbreaking 1984 novel Neuromancer, ‘derms’ are polymer patches that deliver medication and control bodily functions in a future where technology is ubiquitous and the line between mind and machine has grown increasingly blurry. “Anyone who has used nicotine or birth control patches will readily identify with the concept of transdermal [through the skin] application of medication,” says Holmes.

The medical applications for technologies exploiting our skin’s potential are intriguing. A 2011 paper in the journal Science, entitled simply “Epidermal electronics”, demonstrated the capacity to monitor heart rate, brain waves, body temperature and chemical content through ultrathin skin-like membranes reminiscent of temporary transfer tattoos.

One of the authors of the paper, John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois in the U.S., says Nokia’s design represents “the earliest of many such device concepts that will exploit new classes of electronics that have formats which enable integration naturally and directly with the human skin”.

Rogers’ start-up company, mc10, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is racing to perfect some of those concepts. Partnered with Reebok, mc10 hopes soon to release health and fitness tracking devices that can twist and stretch – unlike the cumbersome wristbands and chest straps currently available. The product will enable everyday athletes to track their body’s performance and prevent unnecessary strain.

COMBINING THE MONITORING capacity of mc10’s flexible circuits with a haptic signal could warn people with diabetes when their blood sugar is about to drop, or alert runners that it’s time to take a breather, without announcing it to everyone around them. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

Other potential uses include distributing stimulation particles across the entire body in a kind of ‘haptic body suit’, according to Saeid Nahavandi of the Centre for Intelligent Systems Research at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. The body suit could be used to raise situational awareness in the blind or visually impaired, for workers in low-visibility conditions and for soldiers in battle.

Such technologies are already being employed “in the development of remote and robot-assisted surgical techniques,” says Holmes, and could be integrated with humanoid robots sent into “environments where humans cannot survive, for exploration purposes – enabling humans to sensually experience and remotely perceive these environments”.

For the public, more light-hearted uses could be introduced. “Imagine a social playpen like Foursquare where consenting players could hide and seek as a form of mystery dating,” says Holmes. “In a crowded nightclub, they could be made aware of each other by a vibrating alarm. Then the challenge would be to meet up by following directional pulses like arrows that varied in strength depending on the distance from the mystery target.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves, the real question is whether this path is one that humanity is ready to tread.

Marius Portmann, who researches computer network security at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, finds Nokia’s patent interesting, and technically feasible despite several roadblocks – including generating a sufficiently powerful magnetic field – but he says the greatest obstacle will be user acceptance.

“Security could be a problem,” he adds, as the devices could open up an avenue for malicious attacks and pranks through unwanted stimulation. “It is hard to see how some sort of access control mechanism could be implemented.”

Inability to escape the technology – constant immersion – is another concern, says Nahavandi, with the potential for psychological effects as the virtual world dominates the physical. Degrees of implementation could vary between social groups and areas of application, with young people and artists the quickest to adopt the hi-tech tattoos as a sign of being ‘different’ or ‘cool’. “The same people may accept some applications but reject others,” he says.

“Absolutely, I see resistance. There’s always resistance to any form of technological advance,” agrees Satchell. She sees people opposing the tattoos as a kind of corporate branding, akin to covering themselves with logos of their service provider. Others will baulk out of fear that they will be constantly accessible, without the convenient excuse of ‘I didn’t have my phone’. But the digital persona of the future may be more like a smart personal agent, presenting different facets of your life to different hubs in your social network – connected but not necessarily contactable.

“The biggest resistance will come from people who just look at it as an invasion of the human body and see the human body as something that is pure and shouldn’t be corrupted,” says Satchell. Those who feel unnerved at the thought of merging with their cyber self might need to stop and consider how much of their daily activities occur on Facebook, Twitter, email and the like. “Seeing as we’re already so coupled with the functionality, why not take the next step by embedding it?”

It may be time for the entire social construct of the ‘human body’ and ‘natural’ to experience a revolution, Satchell suggests. “I think, actually, it’s very organic. All the connectivity we have to have at the moment – chargers and plugs and all that. To have it actually built in to you is to me a new way of defining organic.”

Ola Jachtorowicz is a biology and environmental studies student at Boston College in the U.S. who recently completed an internship at COSMOS.
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