Electronic tattoos may sound like they belong in the realm of science fiction, but they already exist, and they come with a number of surprising uses. In this blog, we’re taking a look at this exciting new technology, the current applications and how it could be used in the future.
What are electronic tattoos?
First of all, electronic tattoos are not strictly tattoos – there’s no ink involved and nothing pierces the skin. Instead, they are more akin to the transfer tattoos that you can buy. An electronic tattoo is made from an incredibly thin rubber patch containing a circuit of flexible electronic components. This circuit is made from a piezoelectric polymer called polyvinylidene fluoride which can generate its own electric charge.
Current uses and benefits of electronic tattoos
Electronic tattoos are currently being used primarily for healthcare – to monitor vitals and other functions within the human body (such as muscle, heart and brain activity) and give readings and advice in real-time via communication with an external device such as a computer or smartphone.
The thin, stretchable design of electronic tattoos means that they can be worn without any discomfort or restriction and can be worn for longer periods of time, giving a more accurate reading than older monitoring devices. When used to monitor the heart, they can also measure both electrocardiogram and seismocardiograph readings simultaneously.
This technology is already being used for patients, but as the technology develops further, we may well see the application become more widespread, even commonplace. Electronic tattoos are already being used by some athletes and sporting organisations, with tattoos that can display muscle fatigue and hydration by measuring lactate levels and pH values in the skin.
Future uses and benefits of electronic tattoos
Researchers believe that electronic tattoos will have further, more intricate functions as the technology develops. In addition to what is already medically possible, electronic tattoos may be used to stimulate muscle contraction to help patients walk again and overcome issues caused by long periods of inactivity or bed rest. The technology may also be used to improve the functionality of prosthetic limbs, allowing the patient a more natural and intuitive use of their prosthetic.
There are also plenty of uses for this technology outside of healthcare, and more are likely to surface as the technology improves. There are plans for electronic tattoos to be used as lie detectors and tattoos that are worn on the throat could be used to convert speech into voice commands for a range of technologies. As well as this, they could function as remote microphones in environments where speech is either drowned out or muted, by reading the muscular movements of the throat during speech and converting that into clear words on another device.
Researchers have already tested the technology’s potential for use in computer games by using electronic tattoos to convert real-life muscle movements or voice commands into in-game actions. Whilst virtual reality gaming has been around for a while, the introduction of electronic tattoos could result in a VR experience comparable to that of science fiction.
Electronic tattoos are also the future of wearable computing. While we currently have Apple Watches and Fitbits, flexible electronics technology could be woven into items of clothing able to connect to smartphones and computers to perform any number of activities. Electronic tattoos may be able to close existing gaps between us and the smart technology or apps that we currently use.
Rather than inputting the exercises we did at the gym into an app, that information could be recorded in real-time.
Whilst electronic tattoos are primarily being used and researched for their healthcare potential, they may become ubiquitous with smart technology and the Internet of Things. Perhaps more impressive than the tattoos themselves is the development of the technology that has allowed it to happen – flexible electronics. Flexible electronics will see the development of incredible new technologies, some of which we may not even be able to imagine at this point.
Related article: Stretchable Electronics: The Future of Wearable Technology