Where are all of the Electronic Tattoos we Were Promised?

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electronic tattoos
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If ink-based tattoos are classic, electronic tattoos go beyond just the aesthetic. Potentially, e-tattoos could be used to monitor vitals, track distance, and administer drugs. Yet, e-tattoos have yet to reach the widespread popularity they were expected to in 2014.

In fact, Forbes reported that electronic tattoos would be the future of healthcare.

Electronic tattoos blur the line between electronics and biology. Unlike other mobile devices, they are bio-integrated tattoo-like wearables whose applications are limited only by the imagination.

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Bio-Integrated Tattoos to Track Vital Signs

Resembling a regular, old ink tattoo that dries beneath the skin, researcher Nanshu Lu and colleagues from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas designed a cut-and-paste patch integrated with microwires, transistors, diodes and miniaturized sensors. An innovation that earned them the NetExplo Grand Prize in 2013.

This is a newish type of wearable that provides access to vital information such as body temperature, blood pressure, blood oxygen level, heart rate, stress level, and emotional state.

This biological data can be transmitted, via a mobile app, to a physician during physical activity, treatment follow-up, or after graduating from physical therapy.

Several models of electronic tattoos that monitor the activity of the brain, heart, and muscles have followed. Equipped with a flexible electronic circuit printed on a flexible adhesive that follows the shape of the skin, these devices promise a healthcare revolution.

However, there is still the question of commercial viability. The general public does not seem excited about the idea of an electronic tattoo printed on their skin.

What’s Holding Electronic Tattoos From Going Mainstream?

In order to proliferate the e-tattoo, perhaps we should include one for free inside a cereal box, like the famous lick-and-stick tattoos any 1990s kid had dissolving off of their forehead.

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The integrity of an e-tattoo lies in its adherence, thinness, flexibility, and durability (particularly being able to function in extreme conditions). A lack of one or more of these qualities could explain why the market hasn’t exploded.

Electronic tattoos are very hard to design, and as such expensive to produce. One of the main advantages of electronic tattoos is their flexibility, which requires all the components of the circuit to be flexible, which make their design complex and time-consuming.

But scientists are working to make the manufacture of flexible digital tattoos simple, practical, and relatively inexpensive.

For example, researchers from Waseda University in Japan developed a technique to make printed e-circuits using conventional inkjet printers. Instead of making electronic components inside a printed circuit flexible one by one, they made the electrical contacts connecting these components flexible.

Researchers at MIT used gold metal leaf as a conductor to create a temporary tattoo that can be used to control devices. MIT’s DuoSkin process enables anyone to fabricate a customized on-skin interface.

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