Researchers are creating temporary tattoos you can use to control your devices

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In the future, your tattoos could be more than just ink drawings.

Scientists have created a new type of high-tech temporary tattoo that can act as a controller for smartphone apps and other devices. Called DuoSkin, the tattoos were created as part of a joint effort between researchers at MIT and Microsoft Research.

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Temporary tattoos are applied like any other temporary tattoo. Made from gold leaf (and sometimes LEDs), tattoos look more like jewelry than temporary tattoos from decades past.

In an article to be presented at the next International Laptop Symposium, researchers describe three main uses of tattoos: an input device, so that you can control, for example, a smartphone app; an output device, so that the watermark itself can be used as a display; or a communication device, when tattoos use NFC (Near Field Communication) to send data to other devices.

Let’s start with the entry example. Think of the input device as a kind of touchscreen or touchpad. The idea is similar to Google’s Jacquard Project (which incorporates sensors into clothing to create “wearable” touchpads.) But with DuoSkin, the sensors are built into tattoos. This allows them to connect to a computer or smartphone so that you can control the apps by swiping over the tattoo.

The researchers built a prototype in which the tattoo (the MIT document describes it as a “skin bracelet,” which may be the least appealing description) is connected to an Arduino computer, which is paired with a music app for smartphone. By sliding over the tattoo, the wearer can control music playback on the app.

DuoSkin is also able to act as an output device, with tattoos actually displaying information. Researchers at MIT and Microsoft demonstrated this with an app for couples called “Couple Harmony” that allowed couples to share their feelings through tattoos.

One person wore a “mood button” on their arm and supported it when they felt angry. Upon pressing the mood button, the other person’s flame-shaped tattoo lit up (it had built-in LEDs) and twinkled white, so they could see when their partner was angry.

Likewise, scientists also created a tattoo that would glow red or white depending on the wearer’s current body temperature.

Finally, the researchers built an NFC version of the tattoos that allowed them to exchange information by pressing a smartphone on the tattoo. In the prototype they created, the researchers could share their “skin condition” through a smartphone app when someone patted their phone on the tattoo, but the method could be used to share just about any type of information. (Notably, other companies, including Google, have experimented with NFC-enabled temporary tattoos in the past.)

Although still very experimental, DuoSkin offers an interesting look at how future tattoos might work.

“In the future, when you walk into a tattoo parlor, you will come out with a tattoo like this,” says Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, a doctoral student who worked on the project. “They will not only be very technically sophisticated, but they will become an extension of you.”

You can read more about DuoSkin on the MIT website.


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