The world’s first tattoos happened on accident, when prehistoric cavemen unintentionally got fire ashes embedded into skin wounds. The cavemen, deciding that they liked the way it looked, eventually began doing it on purpose. Sometimes, they would engrain the soot in their skin with the help of bone needles or clay disks.
Centuries into the future, tattoos would take on a variety of new purposes in different communities. In Japan, tattoos would be used as a punishment for criminals and social outcasts. At the same time, other cultures would celebrate tattoos for religious or ritualistic purposes, modifying the body as a tribute to a god. Later, as technology became more efficient, tattoos would become common among people who worked as circus attractions, sharing the stories of what their body art meant and how they got it.
Today, much like the mix of purposes of tattoos in the past, there exists a mix of connotations on tattoos today. Some view body art as telling a personal story while others continue to believe they represent shame or disgrace. (Negative outlooks on body art likely stem from the popularity of tattoos as a gang symbol.)
But, thanks to improvements in the nanotechnology sector, the introduction of electronic tattoos is changing the role of tattoos altogether, giving them a new practical purpose.
Additionally, unlike the traditional tattoo, electronic tattoos are temporary tattoos, much like the stick-on, wash-off tattoos you see at a minimart.
The most useful applications of the tech tattoo tackle challenges in medicine. This is because tech tattoos have the ability to provide real-time information about the wearer’s health by assessing the activity of muscle and nerve cells on the skin.
Professor Yael Hanenin of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology did just that to create an alternative to electromyography. Electromyography is an extremely uncomfortable operation that is used to determine the health of a patient’s cells. A common way of performing electromyography calls for the patient to lie down and refrain from moving, all while a needle is stuck into a sample of their muscle tissue. The needle is used to monitor activity in the cells.
Professor Hanenin’s device removes the need for this unpleasant procedure. The new tech tattoo uses a carbon electrode with an adhesive exterior that sticks to the skin. The surface coating is also smooth and conductive so it doesn’t irritate the skin and it helps amplify the carbon electrode’s abilities.
The electrode works by recording the muscle’s changes which lets health professionals monitor patients with neurodegenerative diseases, supplement rehabilitation efforts to improve muscle control, and even give amputees the ability to move artificial limbs with other muscles.
This tattoo also has the unique ability to map the wearer’s emotions by recognizing facial expressions based on the face muscles’ electric signals. For example, the tattoo can tell if a person’s smile is genuine or fake.
Another type of tech tattoo takes on a different approach, using specially equipped inks to detect processes in the body. Dermal Abyss, a collaborative project between MIT and Harvard Medical School, is a tattoo concept that uses biosensors that change color when changes occur in interstitial fluids.
Dermal Abyss explored four different biosensors (a glucose sensor, a sodium sensor, and two different pH sensors) that respond to biochemical fluctuations in the body.
In the same way that the carbon electrode tattoo could replace the need for electromyography, projects like Dermal Abyss could take on struggles of diabetics who must constantly observe their glucose levels.
With the glucose biosensor, a diabetic can simply check a Dermal Abyss tattoo, and depending on whether the tattoo is pink or purple, they can determine their need for insulin.
Molecular nanotechnology researcher Carson Bruns also proposed a similar smart tattoo focusing on skin cancer. Bruns’ tattoo works by staying invisible until it is exposed to unhealthy levels of UV light or heat. If the wearer is able to see their tattoo turn invisible to a bright blue color, it’s a signal to wear apply sunscreen or get out of the sun. The tattoo will fade away again once the wearer is safe. This technology can help prevent serious ailments, such as melanoma.
Beyond these reputable applications though, other tech tattoos have more light hearted goals. MIT also partnered with Microsoft to create DuoSkin, a new type of tattoo that focuses on letting the user interact with their mobile devices and store or display information through an on-skin interface.
The DuoSkin tattoo resembles a trackpad that communicates with a device wirelessly. To do this, DuoSkin communicates through NFC (Near Field Communication). The NFC is based on a chip connecting to a coil that is customized to the tattoo’s design. DuoSkin’s signature metallic designs themselves are aimed to resemble jewelry and celebrate modern fashion trends.
In summary, tech tattoos bring a new perspective to how we look at body art. Perhaps tattoos aren’t skin-deep after all!
Hasin-Liu Kao, Cindy, et al. “DuoSkin.” DuoSkin, MIT Media Labs, duoskin.media.mit.edu/.
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Vega, Katia, et al. “DermalAbyss: Possibilities of Biosensors as a Tattooed Interface.” MIT Media Lab, MIT Media Lab, 27 June 2017, www.media.mit.edu/projects/d-Abyss/overview/.