MIT shows off a smart tattoo that can turn your skin into a touchpad

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With DuoSkin, wearables are no longer just an accessory. They become part of your skin.

The MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research set out to create on-skin user interfaces using gold leaf, which is commonly found in craft stores, as a conductor. Piggybacking on the trend in body-art and metallic jewelry-like temporary tattoos, the team decided to repurpose gold leaf because it is “robust to movements and skin deformations during motion…[and] both workable and aesthetic in appearance.” The smart tattoos, outlined in a paper  that will be presented at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers 2016, look like fashion statements but they include other materials and electrical components that make the tattoos interactive.

The tattoos can turn into an interface that can be used, for example, as a trackpad or a button to remotely control your phone. Alternatively, they can track and show you information about yourself. For example, by including thermochromic displays that change color in reaction to heat, the tattoos can show you your body temperature.

A third possible function is wireless communication. The tattoo could include an NFC (near field communications) tag, an electrical component that includes small microchips to store data that can be read by phones or other NFC devices nearby. In the near future, the technology could serve as a substitute for identification, subway cards, and even movie tickets, DuoSkin’s lead researcher Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao said in an interview with Quartz.

Kao calls DuoSkin a “project” and not, as you might expect, a product or prototype. The team hopes that others will read their research and use the information as a basis to create their own personalized on-skin wearables.

In theory, the process is simple. First, you sketch the circuitry with a graphic design software. Then, you have to create stencils of the circuitry by applying a layer of vinyl film on thin temporary tattoo paper and cut it with an electronic cutter. After that, you layer the conductive gold leaf on top with spray adhesives. The next step is mounting the electronics. The DuoSkin device is planted on the user’s skin like a regular temporary tattoo through water-transfer: apply the tattoo to your skin, press down with a damp cloth, peel off the backing paper, and then remove it, leaving the tattoo behind.

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