It’s incredibly hard to believe that the year is 2019, and...on top of that...it’s already half over. For many of us, the world doesn’t look exactly how we thought it would. No one wears silver space suits or spring loaded latex bikinis as everyday attire, flying cars still aren’t available to the general public, and Star Trek’s famed transportation device has yet to be the norm for travel.
Not as far-fetched as it sounds, researchers are looking at the use of smart tattoos specifically for health oriented uses. It’s actually something pretty in tune with the history of humanity. Perhaps the most famous of preserved mummies, Otzi the Iceman lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE. He’s also covered in 61 tattoos, many of which are on traditional acupuncture points. Scientists today are taking this medicinal quality of tattoos to new heights by introducing chemical compounds, and more, that have specific uses.
Harvard and MIT have been doing something similar to the German-based group. The project called “Dermal Abyss” is yet another experiment in the uses of inks that can identify levels of glucose or sodium. “The work, conducted by two postdoctoral fellows at Harvard Medical School and colleagues led by Katia Vega at MIT’s Media Lab, paired biosensitive inks developed at Harvard with traditional tattoo artistry as a way to overcome some of the limitations of current biomedical monitoring devices.” Rather than have sensors that are large and cumbersome with short battery life, these tattoos could eliminate those problems.
Carson Bruns, a researcher in the interdisciplinary field of molecular nanotechnology, has been working on another health minded smart tattoo that also relates to the type of ink used. Hailing from the University of Colorado, Bruns’ focus is how UV light and heat can transform a previously invisible tattoo to one that is bright blue; an alert to grab some sunscreen or head to shade. Considering Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer out there, the use of this tattoo is no joke. In an interview Bruns stated, ““Basically, if you can see the tattoo, it means you’re overexposed to sunlight and you are at an increased risk of getting sunburn and skin cancer. If you put sunscreen on, it’ll disappear and you’ll know you’re safe.”
Much like their more permanent counterparts, Bio-Wearables are basically temporary tattoos that are being produced to do everything from monitor blood sugar levels to help you communicate wirelessly.
Similar to Tel Aviv’s nanotech tattoo is MIT’s “living tattoo” which employs “genetically programmed living cells” to respond to many different types of stimuli. The patch works very much like a temporary tattoo, and has a very cyberpunk aesthetic. In the video below the process is explained in detail, as well as the various uses of a device such as this.
Developed at the University of Texas in Austin, researchers are also using graphene, an ultra thin layer of graphite created with elemental carbon. “The graphene electronic tattoo works like many commercially available, wearable health and fitness trackers and, just like other wearables, it can monitor both heart rate and bioimpedance, one way to determine the body’s response to electrical current.” The difference is in the weight, feel, and design of this particular smart tattoo. “The ultra-thin tattoos conform to the skin, unlike larger, clumsier electronics that are mounted onto the skin with straps.”
Still want more capabilities from your smart tattoo? Tons of tech companies are working on that. Take Motorola, for example, who, in 2013, sent out a patent to create the world's first electronic neck tattoo. Basically this piece would be like a smartphone microphone and, more or less, permanently embedded into your body. “According to the patent application, said neck tattoo would pick up sound by reading the "fluctuations of muscle or tissue in the throat" and sending it to a smartphone or other device wirelessly.” Pretty wild, right?
With 2020 right around the corner, tattoo technology will certainly continue to evolve. Depending on your needs, your wants, and your personal philosophies on body modification, it may be something that could be a part of your future! Whether you'd like to control a flying car by simply swiping your finger across your skin, or whether you're a diabetic who is tired of sticking tiny needles into your bod, it's clear that scientists have got your back. It seems that only our imaginations will be the defining boundaries for what we are capable of.