Technology 4 min read

Check Your Health With This Self-Powered Smart Tattoo

Charcompix |

Charcompix |

Researchers at MIT and Harvard created a biosensitive ink that turns the skin into an indicator of health stats.

Through various projects and partnerships, MIT Media Lab helps tattoos go beyond their simple use as a fashion statement to become a true health monitoring asset.

That’s not the only thing the lab does, of course. MIT researchers want to push “smart” tattoos even more in order to overcome the constraints of conventional health wearable tech and make human skin an interactive surface.

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Smart Tattoos Overcome Technical Issues Encountered by Other Wearables

Smartwatches, connected bracelets, and activity trackers like Apple’s newest series of Apple Watch (which you can read about here) are changing the way we manage our health. They have become more effective as health monitors thanks to a system of sensors, including pedometers, heart rate monitors, sleep quality analyzers, and workout-related apps.

However, their use is still limited due to some inherent factors, such as their battery life and their reliance on a constant Internet connection. Apple solved that last one with the Apple Watch 3, we should mention.

Smart tattoos, on the other hand, are poised to bypass these issues, while delivering real-time insights into one’s health. If e-tattoos have taken a long time to arrive, it’s not for want of trying by scientists who are helping these wearables get the body real estate they deserve.

Last year, MIT Media Lab presented its wearable, called DuoSkin, developed with Microsoft Research using gold leaf.

DuoSkin is an on-skin user interface of an e-tattoo that turns the skin into a touchpad. It can, for example, remotely control a phone or provide info about body temperature by changing color somewhat like a mood ring.

This time, MIT has partnered with another university to imagine smart tattoos that require no power source or Wi-Fi to function, unlike other wearables and connected objects.

“Dermal Abyss” Ink to Make Bio-interface Tattoos

Researchers at MIT Media Lab and Harvard Medical School have developed a smart tattoo ink that changes color to reflect blood sugar or dehydration levels.

“We were thinking: New technologies, what is the next generation after wearables?” said HMS’ Ali Yetisen, one of the ink developers. “And so we came up with the idea that we could incorporate biosensors in the skin.”

To create “Dermal Abyss”, unlike conventional tattoo ink, the MIT and HMS research team used biosensors that change their color in reaction to variations in the interstitial fluid located between skin cells.

There would be an associated code to interpret each color the ink takes. Researchers explored four sensors that react to three biochemical reactions: The first sensor passes from blue to brown depending on the increase in glucose level. The pH sensor goes from purple to pink. Another pH sensor turns fluorescent under UV light. Lastly, the sodium sensor also reacts to UV using fluorescence.

Researchers gave some thought to the aesthetic aspect of their creation as well, because Dermal Abyss blends “advances in biotechnology with traditional methods in tattoo artistry.”

This system requires no battery, so the tattoo can stay on the skin for years without problems, and if ever the user for whatever reason no longer wants the tattoo, it can be removed easily.

Dermal Abyss Ink is still at the proof-of-concept stage, so will probably take a few years before it’s viable for the commercial market.

“This is a research project,” said researchers, “and there are currently no plans to develop Dermal Abyss as a product or to pursue clinical trials.”

What would you pay for a tattoo like this?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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