IoT = Internet of Tattoos? Inside the world of high-tech tattoos

Image credit: TattooSchool

No longer considered a social or professional taboo, tattoos have, by and large, become a mainstream concept that is now considered commonplace both publicly and in the workplace. The US Food and Drug Administration currently estimates that 45 million Americans sport a tattoo, with more women than men wearing ink in their skin. Much of this sea change in the perception of tattoos is attributed to the improvement and evolution in technology for applying tattoos safely with fewer health risks, less pain, and greater permanence.

The United States currently has over 8,000 registered tattoo parlors that generate an average of $3.4-billion in revenue due to popular demand. It is this booming business that is driving innovations in technology far beyond the arena of body art and individual rebellion against societal norms. Researchers in the medical, technology, and consumer electronics industries are all currently researching numerous potential advancements that tattoos could bring to their respective disciplines.

Scientists at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California San Diego, and the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Korea (KAIST) are all studying numerous applications for tattoos that function as anything from medical monitors to smartphone interfaces. New tech startups are being founded and funded every year that are dedicated to changing the way tattoos are applied and the functions they can serve beyond creating works of art and personal statements in the dermis of their bearers. Check out these infographics with the latest in cutting edge tattoo technology that is shaping the future and purposes for getting inked.

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Bio-monitor tattoos

Nano-tech engineers at UC San Diego are in the process of testing temporary tattoos that can both extract and measure blood-glucose levels from the fluid found between skin cells. It is the first device of its kind that can provide a non-invasive method for glucose testing in those who suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. This temporary tattoo also demonstrates the potential for other uses for a biomonitoring implant in measuring other metabolites within the body, or as means of regulating dosage of medicine directly into the skin.

MIT has also been hard at work in the biomonitor tattoo field, presenting current research on their Dermal Abyss project. Instead of a temporary tattoo applied to the surface of the skin, these tattoos use specialized biosensor ink rather than traditional ink. Partnering with Harvard Medical School, the Dermal Abyss team developed three types of biosensor inks that can measure shifts in the interstitial fluid of the skin, altering their color according to the current level of glucose, sodium, or pH in a human body. This project is part of an ongoing series of projects being developed for future tech implants that have been dubbed “beauty technology”. Other innovations under development include smart fake-eyelashes, conductive makeup, and RFID-enabled nail polish. The purpose of such research is to find more ways to integrate technology into appealing and functional applications for men and women.

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DuoSkin tattoos

This tech is a joint venture at MIT funded by Microsoft to develop an individual fabrication process for creating individually customized functional devices that can be adhered directly to the skin. Using gold-leaf (a cheap, skin friendly, and robust conductive material), artists and technology developers have created touch sensor inputs, data output displays, and even wireless communication when interfaced with mobile devices such as a tablet or smartphone.

Designs tested so far have included controls for smartphones worn on the skin, new message and other information displays, data vaults, and even rudimentary microphones. The purpose of the DuoSkin initiative is to eliminate the idea of on-skin tech implants being some sort of unfathomable technology with no easily adapted, user-friendly applications.

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Sub-dermal temporary tattoos

Developed by a small company called Ephemeral, this new tech in tattooing is intended to reach any individual who is uncertain about the idea of permanently inking their body. Rather than using a hi-tech machinery, this innovation is thanks to specially formulated inks that are designed to fade from the skin after a year or so, with an option to use a specialized device to fade them out even faster.

Founder and CEO Seung Shin originally developed the concept as a result of a personal experience he had as a college student when he got a tattoo on his arm. His family’s reaction was extremely negative, and he ended up getting the tattoo removed eventually. However, he found the entire process of laser tattoo removal to be quite painful, and it left unsightly scarring. After graduating from New York University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, Shin decided to put his education and experience to work developing a better temporary tattoo ink.

The secret is in the molecular structure of the ink, which Shin describes as a transparent sphere of biomaterial that is filled with smaller dye molecules. The bonds of these ink molecules naturally decay over time, but can also be broken up more rapidly using a device they have developed as a part of the process. They are currently seeking investors, and expect to have their temporary tattoo ink to market by 2018.

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Biotech tattoos

New Deal Design is a tech firm that spearheaded much of the wearable fitness tech we see today, such as FitBit. Their current innovation, Project Underskin, is to create a smart digital biotech tattoo that acts as a credentials implant for opening doors in secure locations or accessing user profiles and secure files on a computer or network. These tattoos would also have biosensor functions for personal health monitoring similar to current wearables, and would even allow contact transfer of information by touching specialized sensor interfaces. This technology is still in the very early stages of technology, but their current president states that once the flexibility issue has been resolved, products that integrate these technologies for sub-dermal implants and tattoos could be available as soon as the next ten years.

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Soundwave tattoos

This fascinating technology was designed by California-based artist Nate Siggard, who worked with a team of experts in various fields to create his unique and personalized augmented reality tattoos. Using an app called SkinMotion, users upload a recorded audio message in a clip to an online server. They then have their personalized soundwave tattooed on their skin by a certified Skin Motion artist. The resulting tattoo can be scanned with the app and the audio clip replayed. Other Skin Motion users can scan your tattoos and hear your audio clips, making your tattoos a visual and auditory statement. Popular choices for a Soundwave Tattoo include recordings of a loved one’s voice or a favorite song.

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Linking the ancient and the new

Overall, tattoos and their overall perception have changed drastically in the past three decades, and the taboos surrounding their application and use are changing even further thanks to cutting edge research by innovators around the world in every area of the sciences. While some may be concerned about the moral and personal privacy implications of wearing one’s actual identity in their skin for anyone with the right devices to read or compromise, the fact remains that scientists are embracing this unique form of cultural art and adapting it to become a part of our future.

Mankind has been inscribing ink in its skin over the past 5,000 years of recorded history, and is far more than a passing fad or trend. The idea that an integral part of our past is quickly becoming our future is a fascinating reciprocal relationship. It all seems so fitting that one of the innovations of our past once considered savage or barbaric is not only a mainstream part of culture around the world, but it is soon to become a symbol of the synthesis between the ancient and the brand-new. Perhaps one day, not inking your skin will be the cultural taboo, rather than the other way around.

Written by Rick Kolek and first published at TattooSchool. Reprinted here with their kind permission.

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