E-Skin: The future of wearable technology

24 October 2017

Interview with

Zhenan Bao, Stanford University

What will tattoos look like in the future? Worldwide, teams are developing electronic skin and e-tattoos, these are flexible materials can sit on our skin and keep an eye on our health, as Georgia Mills and Graihagh Jackson found out. Zhenan Bao from Stanford University is an expert in the field…

Zhenan - What we’re trying to do is to make the future of wearable electronics. The future of wearables are going to be soft, stretchable, and bendable like our skin. It can look like a tattoo that could be temporary and they can sense different parameters: from blood pressure, heart rate, to temperature or, in the future, even chemical signals.

Georgia - Picture a rub-on tattoo with tiny patches of electronics - an e-tattoo if you will. You could place it on your body and directly measure what’s going on in there: your blood pressure, your temperature, heart rate, or even get a peek at your immune system…

Zhenan - The combination of information can be used to potentially predict the onset of certain diseases. For example, one of my colleagues at Stanford did a study; he was able to predict the onset of flu even before the patient started to feel the symptoms of flu.

Georgia - Pretty handy! And in the future, soft electronics could even be placed under our skin giving the sensor more access to information linked to our hormones, which could help monitor depression or things like blood sugar levels. And getting a little bit ‘big brother,’ some companies have even planted these chips under their employees’ skin to act as access cards and open doors. But skin, unlike most electronic equipment, is stretchy, so for e-tattoos to work they need to be built a little bit differently…

Zhenan - We use soft plastic material and, through molecular engineering, we make such plastic into electronic materials so that they not only can conduct electricity but also, at the same time, they're as soft as our skin and potentially can even self-heal as our skin.

Georgia - Zhenan is even exploring the possibility of creating flexible batteries to match these stretchy electronic circuits. But there are still a few different challenges to overcome…

Zhenan - The tattoos or the patches will transmit information wirelessly. We need to make sure they are secure so that the information about the person will not be hacked. In that case, the patient needs to be able to control who can view the information and who they want to share the information with. In order for e-skin to be widely spread, we need to address both technological issues and security issues.

Georgia - Zhenan Bao there - Graihagh what do you think, would you get an e-tattoo?

Graihagh - I kind of like the idea of being able to predict the onset of flu and I could even, although it’s slightly like a dog being chipped or something, but I could even get on board with that if I could get on the train and tap in rather than buy a ticket. It was only when Zhenan said about wirelessly transmitting data that I suddenly thought “hang on a minute here, I’m not entirely convinced I want someone to know my movements throughout my Saturday or any day, actually, for that matter.”

Georgia - But especially Saturdays?

Graihagh - But especially Saturday. Who knows what I get up to!


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