Smart Tattoo Technology: The Future Within Skin

Smart Tattoo Technology: The Future Within Skin

These tech tats can monitor your blood sugar, control your TV, and more! Let's talk about the future of smart tattoo technology.

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. 

All that being said, we definitely have made some serious technological advances around the globe. From 3D printed food to Babel-Fish earbuds, don’t think that the tattoo industry has been left out. Tech and tattooing are two of the fastest growing industries across the globe, and each, at its heart, is a service to mankind. In this article we check out how these two have blended, and how scientists hope to use the art form of tattooing to enrich the lives of society.

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. 

At the Technical University of Munich in Germany inks have been produced that change color in response to the bodies natural shifting levels of glucose, pH, and albumin, the main protein in blood plasma. Although the new inks have yet to be tested on human skin, recent tattoo tests on swatches of pig skin showed that they could, in fact, work to help doctors and patients identify serious health concerns quickly and efficiently. 

By using dyes in the inks that react to changes in the varying levels of the aforementioned biomarkers, scientists are able to catch issues that may lead to diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, liver damage, and more, by noting the changing tones of the tattoos color. As of now, the only tattoo that reverts back to its original color after different levels is the pH ink, so much more testing is needed before this becomes a regular hospital feature. However, for those suffering from serious medical needs, this could make their difficulties a little more fun and a little less stressful with mood ring-esque tattoos in a design all their own! 

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. 

This research also focuses on color changing inks, but Jiang and Yetisen believe that, with further study, these pigments could have various medicinal uses. “One ink changes from green to brown as glucose concentration increases. The team has also developed a green ink, viewable under blue light, that grows more intense as sodium concentration rises, an indication of dehydration.” But both scientists realize that there’s a lot of work to do, and many a conversation to be had. Not only the safety of using these inks for long term results, but also the privacy concern some patients if the “smart tattoo” is noticeable. 

“The purpose of the work is to light the imagination of biotechnologists and stimulate public support for such efforts,” Jiang said. “These questions of how technology impacts our lives must be considered as carefully as the design of the molecular sensors patients may someday carry embedded in their skin.”

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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. 

A new temporary tattoo, much like a stick on, was developed by Professor Yael Hanein, head of Tel Aviv University's Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. Placed on the body, the Nanotech tattoo holds a carbon electrode which “can measure the activity of muscle and nerve cells” Professor Hanein stated that the medical uses are many, "The physiological data measured in specific muscles may be used in the future to indicate the alertness of drivers on the road; patients in rehabilitation following stroke or brain injury may utilize the 'tattoo' to improve muscle control; and amputees may employ it to move artificial limbs with remaining muscles."

Originally meant to replace electromyography, “an uncomfortable and unpleasant medical procedure that requires patients to lie sedentary in the lab for hours on end” with a needle jabbed into muscle tissue, this smart tattoo may also be of use for a number of other industries as well. Considering that this smart tattoo measures electrical signals and movement, it can also be used as a way to track human emotion. "The ability to identify and map people's emotions has many potential uses," said Prof. Hanein. "Advertisers, pollsters, media professionals, and others -- all want to test people's reactions to various products and situations. Today, with no accurate scientific tools available, they rely mostly on inevitably subjective questionnaires...our skin electrode provides a more direct and convenient solution."

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.” 

Head researcher Shideh Kabiri had a number of uses for the graphene tattoos including, “applications for the internet of things, smart houses and cities, human computer interaction, smart wheelchairs, speech assistance technology, monitoring of distracted driving, and human-robot control. Recently we have demonstrated the application of graphene tattoos for sensing human signals to wirelessly control flying objects.” Imagine controlling your flying car with a tattoo…

Chaotic Moon is another company experimenting with biowearables that look more like cyberpunk temporary tattoos than anything else. These smart tattoos collect bio data from your body and are able to send it back to doctors for analysis. “According to Chaotic Moon, the tatt will have the ability to monitor body temperature and detect if someone is stressed based on sweat, heart rate and hydration level information uploaded via Bluetooth or location-based low-frequency mesh networks like those used for apps like Jott or Firechat.” Not only do they help with health, they also have tracking abilities that CEO Ben Lamm thinks could be useful not only to the military but parents trying to keep their kids safe. 

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? 

Motorola didn’t stop there. In 2014 the produced yet another tattoo technology that consisted of a biowearable. The smart tattoo was an alternative to typing in pins, facial recognition and fingerprint passwords that unlock your phone. “Motorola claims these waterproof NFC tattoos are the size of a nickel and are designed to last for about five days. Tapping the digital tattoo to the back of your Moto X will supposedly unlock the device instantly, with no typing required.” Apparently the technology has been around for awhile, and isn’t actually the most popular. And considering I can’t find a site where to buy them, I’m assuming they’ve died out. That being said, with ideas like this bouncing around the wireless world it’s clear that integrated ease with our favorite gadgets is just as much at the forefront of smart tattoo tech as health oriented inks.

More recently, MIT once again delves into the world of smart tattoos...but these ones aren’t made with living bacteria, nor do they look like cybernetic tree patterns. Truly on trend with the Coachella queens out there, these temporary tattoos actually glitter with gold. Using microcontrollers, conductors, and wireless communication units, each piece is meant to be paired with a specific electronic tool. The project, DuoSkin, is actually a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research. “Connected to smartphones, computers or other gadgets, DuoSkin can be used like a touchpad controller...Imagine: answering the phone, skipping a track in your podcast queue, turning on a TV or turning down the music with a quick swipe to your forearm. The fact that this system is easily removable is one of the key selling points, a harbinger of future mass-market tech that can be applied, taken back off and discarded, just like any other temporary tattoo.” 

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. 

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