Computers Get Under Our Skin
The future is rapidly approaching:
A small electronic device slapped onto the skin like a temporary tattoo could bring us closer to a future that melds body and machine, a cyborg world where people have cell phones embedded in their throats and Internet browsers literally at their fingertips.
Described in the Aug. 12 Science, the gizmos were developed by researchers looking to create less obtrusive medical monitors for premature babies and other special-needs patients. But the technology’s potential for integrating computers into the human body could be vast.
‘This is a huge breakthrough,’ says nanoengineer Michael McAlpine of Princeton University. ‘This goes beyond Dick Tracy calling someone with a cell phone on the wrist. It’s having the wrist itself house the device so it’s always with you.’
The challenge, says study coauthor John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was matching typically rigid electrical components to the soft, stretchy and flexible skin. Rogers and his colleagues achieved this by converting brittle silicon to a more forgiving state by making it very thin.
Dr. Rogers is interviewed in today’s ScienceMag Podcast:
Continuing with the ScienceNews article:
‘I think creative folks out there will think of things we haven’t even contemplated,’ Rogers says.
For example, the technology has drawn the interest of security-minded people who might be interested in using the electronics to develop a covert communication system. ‘CIA and others have been interested,’ Rogers says. A tiny hidden patch of electronics on the throat, for instance, could allow two agents to covertly communicate with one another. The electronics could detect and transmit muscle activity that represents words, all without the person making a sound.
The patches collected data accurately for up to six hours, and showed no signs of degradation or irritation to the arm, neck, forehead, cheek or chin after 24 hours. The researchers think this life span could be extended, particularly if a strong adhesive is used. But Rogers points out that long-term use of the device is limited because skin cells periodically slough off.
Obviously these patches are meant to be temporary. However, they could integrate with sub-dermal electronics that are long term.
I could see gaming salons quickly adopt these types of devices, for entertainment as well as for security. Also, gyms and fitness centers could make great use of short term patches.
The Science magazine article abstract:
We report classes of electronic systems that achieve thicknesses, effective elastic moduli, bending stiffnesses, and areal mass densities matched to the epidermis. Unlike traditional wafer-based technologies, laminating such devices onto the skin leads to conformal contact and adequate adhesion based on van der Waals interactions alone, in a manner that is mechanically invisible to the user. We describe systems incorporating electrophysiological, temperature, and strain sensors, as well as transistors, light-emitting diodes, photodetectors, radio frequency inductors, capacitors, oscillators, and rectifying diodes. Solar cells and wireless coils provide options for power supply. We used this type of technology to measure electrical activity produced by the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles and show that the resulting data contain sufficient information for an unusual type of computer game controller.
On our way to our cyborg future…