New sensors stick to skin like temporary tattoos : The Two-Way : NPR

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A new type of sensor uses flat, flexible electronics printed on a thin rubbery sheet, which can stick to human skin for at least 24 hours.

John A. Rogers/Science


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John A. Rogers/Science


A new type of sensor uses flat, flexible electronics printed on a thin rubbery sheet, which can stick to human skin for at least 24 hours.

John A. Rogers/Science

Researchers have created a new thin and flexible sensor that can be applied with water, like a temporary tattoo. Measuring activity in the brain, heart and muscles, the innovation could reduce the number of wires and cables medical staff use to monitor patients, among other applications.

Electronics can bend, stretch and squeeze with human skin and maintain contact by relying on “van der Waals interactions” – the natural adhesion attributed to geckos’ ability to cling to surfaces.

In addition to being designed with a sturdy serpentine pattern that resists tearing, the sensors are thinner than a human hair.

“These devices were made through ‘transfer printing’ manufacturing processes that create flexible versions of high-performance semiconductors,” according to Science.

The sensors could even be embedded into actual temporary tattoos, making patients a little less Borg-like – and even offering a chance for style points.

In one test, a device including a microphone was applied to a person’s throat. The computer connected to the sensor could distinguish the words ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ – opening up the possibility that the sensors could help people with disabilities.

In a summary of a Science article publishing their research, titled “Epidermal Electronics” (the full article is only available to subscribers), the study’s authors claim that the “tattoos” could work on solar cells – and could possibly be used to create a new class of joysticks:

Solar cells and cordless coils provide power options. We have used this type of technology to measure the electrical activity produced by the heart, brain and skeletal muscles and show that the resulting data contains enough information for an unusual type of computer game controller.

“The skin represents one of the most natural places to embed electronics,” said materials scientist John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Science. “As the largest organ in our body and the primary mode of sensory interaction with the world, it plays a special role.”

The new sensors were developed by Rogers and colleagues in Singapore, China and the United States. According to Technology Reviewresearchers see many uses for the technology:

Ultimately, says Rogers, “we want to have a much more intimate integration” with the body, beyond just mounting something very close to the skin. He hopes his devices will eventually be able to use chemical information from the skin in addition to electrical information.

The new electronic tattoos should not be confused with the Watermark interface, a 2×4-inch touchscreen implanted subcutaneously and powered by blood. And this, in turn, should not be confused with the more common “plasma screen” used in many televisions.

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