Skinny tech

It really should be no surprise to the beautiful people reading my blog (and the even more beautifuller people following it) that I love science fiction. While I love dabbling in its many, many flavors – space operas (Star Wars) being extremely popular lately – my favorite sub-genre has to be cyberpunk. Yes, I love epic space battles, I still want to captain my own capital ship someday on EVE Online, and I want to be a member of Rogue Squadron more than to be Jedi or Sith, but deep down, I am a tech geek. Which is rather odd considering I don’t even have a smartphone. In my defense, I’m not a Luddite. What I am is broke.

The tech-geek part of me (which is a large part, FYI) has been bouncing off the walls since the release of Pokémon GO. Not because of what I’ve been able to catch (which for many appear to be generation 1 Pokémon and/or at least some trespassing charges), but because of what it entails – augmented reality (AR) is now a public thing, not just for those who had the wherewithal and disposable income to get Google Glass. And now, a team of researchers from Japan want to be able bury ultra-thin electronics taped to your skin. By ‘taped’, it literally is taped – thin enough that it’s taped down to your skin, but stable enough that it won’t change function because it’s bent or touched.

Why would they want to do this? The biggest thing is medical telemetry – you can’t always have a monitor on you everywhere you go, probably because it can get bulky, takes up too much power, and so on. For example, I’m sure there’s a lot of athletics programs that are interested in heart rate and oxygen saturation, but they don’t want you just running on a treadmill to measure that – why not do it in real running conditions, like up hills, down hills, or pelted with colored pigment? Also, these taped-down circuits could allow people to use electronic prosthetics; instead of plugging a prosthetic forearm into your arm like a USB socket, why not have the circuitry taped or tattooed on you already so it seamlessly applies onto your arm? Let’s face it, with computers getting smaller anyway, we might as well miniaturize everything that could connect with a computer. Sounds great, but the problem with really thin tech is that it is really, really thin. This means it’s really, really fragile. Oh, sure they could print it on silk fibrins, but that may be hard to work with.

So how are they going to make this ultra-thin, wearable tech that’s stable? First, they would use different kinds of LEDs; they decided to use more exotic (read as: expensive, but for now) kinds that are more “efficient.” You want efficient, since a lot of our tech isn’t good at using even most of the energy it gets and instead spits it out as heat. Cars are particularly guilty of this, and I would’ve said the same thing about cell phones, but no one really spends a lot of time with their faces pressed against the screen nowadays, do they? Who needs to be reminded that they’ve got oily skin when they’re on the phone?

Once they’ve got their not-going-to-burn-your-skin-off LEDs, they wanted to make different instruments, such as a red/green light taped to the fingertip that measures oxygen saturation and a seven-segment digital display on the back of the hand that could be used to measure temperature. Imagine the picture below taped to the back of your hand – that’s what they’re aiming for with some of their devices.

320px-digital_clock_display_8888-svg
(source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

They came up with a kind of protective layer to protect the circuitry that not only shields it from the elements (as much as it can, anyway), but it can keep it together and extends its half-life from 2 hours to 29. It’s the same idea as why wires are covered in rubber and your nerves are covered in jelly – it just makes it more efficient at using power instead of generating more and more heat. They tape it on some poor sucker a volunteer’s skin to see if it works, and they put it through stretch tests to see if it becomes less effective after a lot of use.

So what happened? First of all, it’s surprisingly stable, with only the green light on the oxygen meter only losing 10% of its light intensity after 200 stretches; all the other lights were fine. Also, it has the same power requirements and characteristics on their flexible layer as if they had done it on glass, which is good, because you really don’t want glass on your skin anyway (because it can end up going into your skin right quick). So it works and it’s nice and bendy. Not bad for something that’s thinner than a red blood cell.

It may be a matter of time before this kind of tech can get literally under your skin. Imagine a FitBit implanted on your wrist or something, and all you have to do is press your hand on some kind of sensor like a chip reader on a card. They already have programmable tattoos already anyway, so why not this? They just have to find a way to not make it scorch you beneath your skin, not have it attacked and rejected by your immune system, find a way to power it and not blow out (think of a battery leak – now imagine that rupturing directly into your muscles). Once they work that out – remember that this is what research is for – the applications are enormous.

That, or we’re all going to look like we stepped out of Tron. Oh well, I think I’m going to like looking cyberpunk anyway. As a great man once said, “my body is ready.”

Featured article: Yokota T, Zalar P, Kaltenbrunner M, Jinno H, Matsuhisa N, Kitanosako H, Tachibana Y, Yukita W, Koizumi M, Someya T. (2016) Ultraflexible organic photonic skin. Science Advances. 2(4) 10.1126/sciadv.1501856

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC0/Public Domain, author: Thomas Springer)

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