Electronic Tattoo Grafts Gadgets to Skin

The ultrathin device can stick to skin like a temporary tattoo and is powerful enough to read brain signals.

Wearable electronics usually trade flexibility for computing power, but engineers have created a new ultrathin device from silicon that can stick to skin like a temporary tattoo and are powerful enough to read brain signals.

"You can't change the biology so you really have to redefine the nature of electronics," said John A. Rogers, the University of Illinois engineering professor who led the development. He and his colleagues describe the skinlike electronic device in a forthcoming article of the journal Science.

Over the past several decades, most approaches to wearable electronics involved skinlike electronic platform creating points of contact, like electrodes, or focused on flexibility over computing capabilities. "It throws away essentially all of the scientific knowledge and engineering know-how that's already been built up around silicon," Rogers said.

So he kept at it, taking silicon from a half-millimeter thick wafer to a nanomembrane.

The new platform has silicon-based circuitry fabricated in a wavy structure dubbed "filamentary serpentine" that allows it to form a web of electronics. Those circuits are integrated into extremely thin rubber sheets that naturally stick to skin without the need for adhesive.

The researchers took continuous measurements successfully for 6 hours and found that there was no irritation or degradation caused when leaving the devices on for 24 hours. Rogers says that after about two weeks, naturally-occurring skin exfoliation would make it difficult for the electronics to stay in place.

Rogers and his team have focused primarily on exploring medical applications for the technology. When laminated on the forehead, the heart and the forearm, the device worked as well as standard electrodes in measuring activity. On the throat it was sensitive enough to record throat muscle contractions during vocalization, which means it could help people with difficulty speaking.

The unobtrusive nature of the skinlike electronics make them ideal for monitoring those with problems such as sleep disorders or diseases affecting the larynx that would otherwise need bulky uncomfortable electrodes and devices, Rogers said. Using such lightweight patches could be beneficial to neonatal care for premature babies, he added.

This nearly invisible technology isn't entirely passive, either. Working with a team from Johns Hopkins, the researchers found that by placing patches on rat legs they were able to make the legs move back and forth through electrical stimulation. Stimulating muscle without constraining it is important for physical rehabilitation, Rogers said.

"There are a lot of advancements that can happen immediately if you take more sophisticated existing conventional devices and put them in this spiderweb layout," Rogers said. The technology could one day be used by gamers, too. Although Rogers admits that the capability is still primitive, he demonstrated that speaking into a patch on the throat could control the direction of a cursor.

Next, Rogers and his colleagues plan to engineer and demonstrate fully-integrated wireless communication capability for their platform so it can transmit information more easily. The ultimate goal is to commercialize this technology through Mc10, a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that Rogers co-founded in 2008. Eventually he'd also like to enable the electronics to process dead skin cells, allowing the device to stick much longer.

Qibing Pei is a materials science and engineering professor at UCLA who works on making polymer electronic devices that are extremely stretchy. He and his colleagues created wearable electronic displays from intrinsically stretchable polymer LEDs. He said Rogers' platform has very good potential.

"The most interesting part to me is that he manages to make the metal electrode, the semiconductor devices, extremely small and structured," he said. The filamentary serpentine devices can also stretch up to 30 percent, Pei added. "It's quite compatible with the skin."

Bendy electronics that stick to the skin could work effectively as sensors that monitor heart and brain activity without bulky equipment,

June 5: National Tattoo Day!

June 5, 2012 -

Happy National Tattoo Day! Get out there and show off your ink today. Plus, be sure to celebrate the culture and artistry of tattooing. More and more Americans are getting "ink," with no sign of slowing. Tattooing, once considered something only bikers, punkers and rebels did, is now considered a fashionable and trendy accessory, almost as common these days as pierced ears. But we still don’t know that much about tattoos. Megan Massacre of TLC's NY Ink, a tattoo artist for nearly a decade, says this is a particularly exciting time for the industry. "It is a completely different industry than the one I got into (almost 10 years ago)," she told Discovery News. Here, we take a look at the history of the body art, what the ink is made of and what's behind the current craze for tattoos.

FACT #1: Tattoos are nearly as old as man. The oldest discovered human tattoos are on the 5,300-year-old Oetzi iceman mummy -- the oldest mummy ever found. Ancient tribes used tattoos to signify many major life events like manhood, faith, marriage, punishment and love. The Oetzi mummy's tattoos are in areas of degeneration and may have been therapeutic according to Smithsonian Magazine. Each society had a different method of body modification, with ink commonly made of plant and animal matter. One cultural recipe called for smoke black (of wood or oil), mixed with milk from the breast of a woman. While Inuit cultures used a thread soaked in ink to draw the color into the skin, the Maori people of New Zealand used wood cutting tools. Across societies, a master tattooist would spend his entire life learning to perform the messy, painful process. Sharpened sticks, needles, rocks or other tools were used to cut open the skin to prepare it to accept the ink. Without modern equipment "tattoos are much more painful and take a long time," said Massacre.

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FACT#2: Tattooing is not an easy field to enter. The permanent, ritualistic modification of the human body takes years of training. In ancient times, tattooing was something of a sacred profession revealed researchers at Michigan State University. Today, modern tattoo artists join apprenticeship programs involving years of study. Like internships in other jobs, apprentices start by "doing the (grunt) work, getting coffee, that sort of thing," Massacre told Discovery News. In fact, for the first year, most apprentices will probably never touch a client. Instead, the newbies learn to clean equipment properly, how to protect themselves and their clients from blood-borne pathogens, as well as proper medical health codes and practices in their state.

FACT#3: Tattoo artists were not always artists. Where it was once a form for vagrants, criminals and other "unsavory" characters, tattooing is in a state of change. Prior to the widespread popularity of tattooing in the 1960s, many tattoo artists failed to follow recommended health and safety practices. These tattooers were not usually artists and may have never received training, but with no real regulation, anyone who could afford a machine and a chair could tattoo. With its new-found popularity, tattooers are artists, entrepreneurs, business managers, accountants, teachers and more. They do much more than put ink in skin. At one time, it wasn't considered art, "but now it's an artistic profession. It's taken so seriously," said Massacre. "There are people with graphic design degrees, from art schools (out there) tattooing."

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FACT #4: The FDA does not approve tattoo ink or equipment. In reality, the Food and Drug Administration has very little to do with the tattoo industry. That may change in the future. Massacre said she'd heard urban legends where unused ink was dumped into a store-shared vat along with the blood and sweat inevitably mixed in during the tattooing process. Today, shops use small vials of ink and any unused portions are disposed of using standard biohazard practices. Massacre told Discovery News, "FDA doesn't have to approve anything and doesn't really monitor all the time. There's no one out there maintaining ink or products. The government doesn't monitor it either… It's an interesting time to be into business."

FACT #5: Skin is not easy to draw on. "Basically, tattoos don't go all the way through the skin. Scratching is more accurate," continues Massacre, "It only penetrates three to five layers of skin… and we tattoo mostly by feel." The artist learns to tattoo without seeing what they're doing because blood, ink, their own equipment can get in the way. Additionally, skin, unlike paper or canvas, is not uniform in color, texture or thickness. A good artist will have to learn to tattoo scars, bumps, blotches or other natural fluctuations to create a uniform product.

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FACT #6: Tattooers are not sadists. Tattoo artists are "kind of like doctors," said Massacre. "They're asking (us) to put them through pain and if they're in a lot of pain it can become difficult to continue; not because they're moving, but because you feel guilty. We see people in their ugliest states. They're crying and bleeding and in pain... . These are people you're just meeting for the first time, but you have to learn to be comfortable with people," coax them through and finish the job.

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FACT #7: Many people are allergic to red tattoo ink. Does your skin change color when you wear cheap jewelry? You might be allergic to nickel. According to the Mayo Clinic, nickel allergy is the most common form of "allergic contact dermatitis" -- or a rash made when a harmless substance touches the skin. However, when inserted under the skin in a tattoo, the problems compound. The tattoo ink "can cause bumps and take longer to heal," said Massacre. Some people may have "severe allergic reactions to the tattoo." The results are ugly, so double check for a possible allergy before getting a red tattoo.

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FACT #8: The tattoo process isn't over when you leave the shop. You can affect your tattoo even though it's inside your body. Tanning is a major way to destroy a tattoo. "Laser tattoo removal uses UV light," said Massacre, "it's the same as the tanning bed, but more concentrated." Tattoos exist three to five layers into the skin. Thus, the melanin that gives your skin color is actually on top of the tattoo. Over time, white, yellow and orange inks break down and oxidize. As you age, even the black ink will fade, turning bluish over time. "If you can't stay away from a tanning bed, then use sun block or cover it" and it will last longer said Massacre.

FACT #9: Tattoos can glow, vibrate and can be inked anywhere on the body. We reported about a vibrating tattoos back in March when Nokia filed a patent application for a "vibrating, magnetic tattoo that alerts you of your phone's activity." Tattoos can also glow in the dark and even respond to black light. However, there is no such thing as an "invisible tattoo." Even completely clear ink appears when human skin changes color with heat, emotion and season. Not surprisingly, people request tattoos on all parts of their body. People are tattooed inside their lips, on the bottoms of their feet and other more sensitive places. Massacre has seen a man with a tattoo in the whites of his eyeballs. Penis tattoos are not rare, however, men request female tattoo artists for those because, as Massacre said, "Some guys don't want other guys touching them."

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FACT #10: Drinking before being tattooed is a bad idea. A good artist won't tattoo a visibly intoxicated customer. The key word there is


. Plenty of artists (good or bad) will take your money, slap a tat in your skin and let you deal with the hangover AND the new ink. Alcohol might numb your body to the pain, but it is also a blood thinner. Thinner blood means more bleeding during the process. More blood can make it difficult for the artist and make the experience take even longer. Bottom line; avoid the alcohol leading up to the tattoo and afterward. Let your body heal first. If you're simply looking to numb the pain, products do exist specifically to help, but they don't always last long enough to endure the full tattooing process.

BONUS FACT: Tattoo artists take pride in their work. It may not be surprising, but tattoo artists aren't robots, they're artists. They take pride in what they produce and though you're wearing it, the tattoo is something you and the artist create together. "It's probably the least permanent form of artwork," said Massacre, "A painting lasts hundreds of years, long after the artist is dead," but tattoos go with the person. "We get to (create) the art, but we're given a lot of guidelines and restrictions. The artist knows best. Let the artist design and create with you," said Massacre. If the artist is having fun and learning about what you like, then the piece will mean a lot more for the both of you.

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What to do now? When asked what to look for in a tattoo, Massacre told Discovery News, "Laws are different for every city and state, and they're ever changing. One of the most important things is equipment sterilization. Glance around and see if the shop is clean. Are the floors clean? Does it smell clean? Did they dust the corners?" Full disclosure: the writer of this slideshow has a tattoo. Hopefully, these facts don't discourage any thoughts of tattooing yourself, but be smart. The experience should feel personal and shared with you and the artist. Ultimately, it's your skin and your body; you have the right to a comfortable, clean and artistic experience. Check out Megan Massacre's art and follow her career on her website www.MeganMassacre.com.