Smart skin: Electronics that stick and stretch like a temporary tattoo (w/ video)

August 11, 2011, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
An ultrathin, electronic patch with the mechanics of skin, applied to the wrist for EMG and other measurements. Photo courtesy John Rogers

Engineers have developed a device platform that combines electronic components for sensing, medical diagnostics, communications and human-machine interfaces, all on an ultrathin skin-like patch that mounts directly onto the skin with the ease, flexibility and comfort of a temporary tattoo.

Led by researcher John A. Rogers, the Lee J. Flory-Founder professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, the researchers described their novel skin-mounted electronics in the Aug. 12 issue of the journal Science.

The circuit bends, wrinkles, and stretches with the of skin. The researchers demonstrated their concept through a diverse array of electronic components mounted on a thin, rubbery substrate, including sensors, LEDs, transistors, capacitors, wireless antennas, and conductive coils and for power.

"We threw everything in our bag of tricks onto that platform, and then added a few other new ideas on top of those, to show that we could make it work," said Rogers, a professor of materials science and engineering, of chemistry, of mechanical science and engineering, of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering. He also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and with the Frederick Seitz Laboratory at U. of I.

A new form of electronics, small enough to fit under a temporary tattoo, changes the way scientists think about gathering data from the human body. Credit: University of Illinois

The patches are initially mounted on a of water-soluble plastic, then laminated to the skin with water – just like applying a temporary tattoo. Alternately, the can be applied directly to a temporary tattoo itself, providing concealment for the electronics.

"We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer," said U. of I. electrical and computer engineering professor Todd Coleman, who co-led the multi-disciplinary team. "The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable."

Skin-mounted electronics have many biomedical applications, including EEG and EMG sensors to monitor nerve and muscle activity.

One major advantage of skin-like circuits is that they don't require conductive gel, tape, skin-penetrating pins or bulky wires, which can be uncomfortable for the user and limit coupling efficiency. They are much more comfortable and less cumbersome than traditional electrodes and give the wearers complete freedom of movement.

"If we want to understand brain function in a natural environment, that's completely incompatible with EEG studies in a laboratory," said Coleman, now a professor at the University of California at San Diego. "The best way to do this is to record neural signals in natural settings, with devices that are invisible to the user."

Monitoring in a natural environment during normal activity is especially beneficial for continuous monitoring of health and wellness, cognitive state or behavioral patterns during sleep.

In addition to gathering data, skin-mounted electronics could provide the wearers with added capabilities. For example, patients with muscular or neurological disorders, such as ALS, could use them to communicate or to interface with computers. The researchers found that, when applied to the skin of the throat, the sensors could distinguish muscle movement for simple speech. The researchers have even used the electronic patches to control a video game, demonstrating the potential for human-computer interfacing.

The circuits’ filamentary serpentine shape allows them to bend, twist, scrunch and stretch while maintaining functionality. Photo courtesy John Rogers

Rogers' group is well known for its innovative stretchable, flexible devices, but creating devices that could comfortably contort with the skin required a new fabrication paradigm.

"Our previous stretchable electronic devices are not well-matched to the mechanophysiology of the skin," Rogers said. "In particular, the skin is extremely soft, by comparison, and its surface can be rough, with significant microscopic texture. These features demanded different kinds of approaches and design principles."

Rogers collaborated with Northwestern University engineering professor Yonggang Huang and his group to tackle the difficult mechanics and materials questions. The team developed a device geometry they call filamentary serpentine, in which the circuits for the various devices are fabricated as tiny, squiggled wires. When mounted on thin, soft rubber sheets, the wavy, snakelike shape allows them to bend, twist, scrunch and stretch while maintaining functionality.

"The blurring of electronics and biology is really the key point here," Huang said. "All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid. Biology is soft, elastic. It's two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them."

The video describes the new epidermal electronics system and shows how it is applied to the skin. Credit: J. Rogers, University of Illinois
The researchers used simple adaptations of techniques used in the semiconductor industry, so the patches are easily scalable and manufacturable. The device company mc10, which Rogers co-founded, already is working to commercialize certain versions of the technology.

Next, the researchers are working to integrate the various devices mounted on the platform so that they work together as a system, rather than individually functioning devices, and to add wi-fi capability.

"The vision is to exploit these concepts in systems that have self-contained, integrated functionality, perhaps ultimately working in a therapeutic fashion with closed feedback control based on integrated sensors, in a coordinated manner with the body itself," Rogers said.

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1 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2011
This is a really great leap forward in my opinion. When the smart chips they're designing for cities start merging (sharing information) with this new 'elastic electronic' material, we will be one step closer to 'Rainbow's End' by Verner Vince. A truly stunning book, about just this type of idea.
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
Animated tattoos, implanted medical devices with viewable monitors on the skin, if this could be piezoelectric, every wrinkle is a potential source of power, get your credit card on your wrist, a telly on my belly,etc. I could see this developing into some very interesting wearable technology.

Articles like this are why I read physorg.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 11, 2011
The middle picture looks rather strikingly like an anus.

I look forward to seeing how this develops, the potential for amusement and utility is great. Weren't there some batteries articled on here awhile back that used bodily fluids for their electrolytes?
1 / 5 (2) Aug 11, 2011
hmmm, could this mean someone could hack my tatoo? Maybe turn my telly belly into a 24 hr porn site instead of the desired MIT OpenCourseWare?
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
True GDM, if there were clothing with integrated circuits, or they were stuck to skin, they'd always have a vulnerability.

I'd be curious if they are susceptible to things like static discharges, induced currents, grease/oil/sweat from the body, etc, etc. It's definitely interesting though.
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 11, 2011
Wow, no kevinrtrs or other creotards ranting about the mark of the beast... amazing.
3 / 5 (3) Aug 11, 2011
Wow, no kevinrtrs or other creotards ranting about the mark of the beast... amazing.

The mark of the beast is probably something symbolic, such as willful rebellion against God, rather than something literal.

It does, after all, appear in a text which is loaded with symbology and metaphor, perhaps more than any other Biblical text.

Why is it that the atheist feels compelled to randomly attack creationists on an irrelevant thread?

Had a creationist made a blatantly inflamatory, derogatory, and irrelevant comment such as that, he'd have been banned.

This kind of technology will probably one day be adapted to life-saving medicine and cybernetics.

It's unfortunate that you chose to use it as a platform to attack people on irrelevant matters of which you know nothing anyway.
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
All the whack jobs are commenting on the brietbart coverage of this story linked to from Drudge.
not rated yet Aug 12, 2011
I'd be curious if they are susceptible to things like static discharges, induced currents, grease/oil/sweat from the body, etc, etc.

This shouldn't matter too much since you won't be wearing these types of electronics too long (got to shower some time).

Induction should actually not be much of a problem because antenna effects/induction work best on straight conductors (this is why many conventional high frequency electronics have curvy instead of straight tracks)

Static electricity is a problem mainly for highly integrated circuits where the tracks are in close proximity to each other. So it would depend on how small you make the circuits on the tattoo. But I'm thinking you can't make them too small or you'll lose the flexibility, since that is directly related to the size of the curvy parts in the conductive paths.
5 / 5 (3) Aug 12, 2011

not rated yet Aug 12, 2011
Thanks AP.
2.2 / 5 (5) Aug 12, 2011
"Wow, no kevinrtrs or other creotards ranting about the mark of the beast... amazing. " spoke too soon...sigh...
1 / 5 (6) Aug 12, 2011
VD is an progressive atheist nutjob who state, I bring order to chaos. The only good Republican is a dead Republican.

As the bible thumper here, this is just technology folks, to be used and abused by society. Would I use this technology? Yes for the right purpose. So for all you athiests who are afraid ot the mark, it is not the mark of the beast..... YET ;)

When the mark of the beast does come I'm sure, VD, GDM, and SH will be first in line to take it!
3 / 5 (4) Aug 12, 2011
wow frethinking, are you mad bro?
5 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2011
So for all you athiests who are afraid ot the mark, it is not the mark of the beast..... YET ;)

Umm..I think you misunderstand what an atheist is. We don't care about god(s) or 'beasts'.

A religion that basically says on page one "Acquiring knowledge is the biggest sin ever" doesn't appeal to us (or probably to anyone who reads physorg - believer or not - though the latter may not be aware of the inherent contradiction to their belief system in doing so)

4 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2011
There are going to be some awesome pranks involving this kind of technology in schools! People randomly being shocked so chips on their skin blow up during class, priceless.

Seriously, I grew up in the wrong generation, bah!

And just so I am not neutral on these religious comments, /JesusChristFacePalmWithADube, who'd of thunk getting high all those many years ago and preaching love and respect would go so awry!

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