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Wearable technology & medical devices are on the up. From early electronic assistive devices, such as pacemakers and hearing aids, wearable tech is now getting smaller and easier to fit.
'Wearable tattoos' are at the forefront of this. Thanks to advances in stretchable and flexible materials, electronics can be applied directly to the skin. These temporary tattoos and skin patches feature in technology ranging from simple identification chips to sensors that monitor your health.
Here are some of the latest developments.
Health trackers have been getting smaller for a while, and slim wristbands are common. But now they can be applied directly to the skin. This close contact enables even more monitoring. An example is MC10’s BioStampRC, a soft and flexible sensor that monitors physiological data. It means patients or research subjects can be checked 24/7 without having to carry trackers with them.
WiSP, another wearable tattoo, is a cardiac monitor that captures real-time ECG data and heart rate and can be used by clinicians and consumer applications. MC10 is trialling how wireless, battery-free sensors are being used to monitor premature babies.
RFID (radio frequency identification) uses radio waves to detect objects or people. Big companies have been using RFID tags for years to track packages and shipping containers, monitor stock levels and store other information that 'belongs' to a physical item. Studies in the US show it can improve retail inventory accuracy from an average of 60% to more than 95%.
Wearable tattoos with RFID are ideal for identification and access control, such as automatically admitting and tracking people at events. They can also be used for environmental monitoring applications, such as adjusting air or heating based on the number of people present. They can be used to research behaviour, such as how long people look at a particular product or exhibit, or whether they prefer different ambient environments.
NFC (near field communication) enables communication between two nearby devices. It’s considered a 'frictionless' technology because it removes the need for physical contact. Currently most NFC-enabled devices are physical objects such as bank cards, hotel keys and mobile phones.
Putting them into a wearable tattoo opens up many more applications. One example is Cellotape’s Smart Skin Wearable Tattoo which uses medical-grade adhesive and lasts for up to three days. It enables people to make payments at events without having to carry a wallet, cash or credit card.
Wearable tattoos enable people to make payments at events without having to carry a wallet, cash or credit card
Cosmetics company L’Oréal has developed a tiny heart-shaped wearable tattoo called My UV Patch. Just half the width of a human hair, it contains miniature electronics that connect to a smartphone and monitor sun exposure in real time. L’Oréal claims it’s so thin it wrinkles with the wrinkles on your skin so you barely feel it.
The wearable UV sensor has five layers, including the adhesive strip, an NFC coil to connect with a phone, colour-changing dyes to create a display even without a phone, and a substrate sealing everything together.
There’s research underway into other applications for ultra-thin, flexible electronics further in the future. One example is wearable solar panels, where people can charge personal devices from their own bodies.
Another idea is electronic skin, which can sense temperature and touch, and which might one day replace or supplement the need for skin grafts. For more, check out our article Skin deep: 3D printing human skin.
It’s also hoped that existing sensors will be able to analyse bodily fluids, such as sweat, to check for electrolyte or glucose levels.
So, it looks like wearable technology will serve all kinds of purposes in the future. What would you monitor if you had a wearable tattoo?