Your Skin Just Got Smarter

 

Toss away your wearable devices. Leave your mobile phone at home. With “e-skin” all the information you need is right there on the back of your hand.

Japanese engineers have created a prototype of an ultra-thin flexible electronic skin that may (eventually) be able to be applied to the skin, like a temporary tattoo. The e-skin patch has red, green and blue light emitting diodes that display real-time data. The total thickness of the devices, including the substrate and encapsulation layer, is only 3 micrometers (millionths of a meter). In comparison, the width of a strand of spider web ranges from 3–8 micrometers.

“Our e-skin can be directly laminated (using clear, ultrathin tape) on the surface of the skin, allowing us to electronically functionalize human skin,” said Takao Someya, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Tokyo, and author of a paper on the new device published April 15 in the journal Science Advances.

“We think that functionalizing the skin may replace the smartphone in the future,” Someya told Live Science. “When you carry an iPhone, it is a bulky device. But if you functionalize your own skin, you don’t need to carry anything, and it’s easy to receive information anywhere, anytime.”

The materials and processes used in e-skin displays are already being used in OLED displays used in smartphones, cameras and TVs, which should enable e-skin to go into production fairly quickly.

What data will your “functionalized” skin be able to display? Health information, such as temperature, heart rate, glucose levels and other vital signs. One of the demos that Someya’s team created monitors the concentration of oxygen in a human subject’s blood. Other teams working with the same sort of technology have used flexible electronics to create wearable biochemical sensors that can provide information about athletic performance or medical conditions by analyzing the composition of the wearer’s sweat, saliva and tears.

What sets e-skin apart is that OLEDs degrade when exposed to air and require thick protective coatings that decrease their flexibility. But e-skin uses organic electronics that doesn’t degrade when exposed to air, and is flexible enough to twist and scrunch in response to body movement without losing functionality.

Since displays like e-skin are so comfortable to wear, other potential uses for flexible electronics include monitoring patients in neonatal intensive care units and sleep labs, where the current monitoring systems can be distracting and obtrusive. The displays could also collect data aimed at understanding and managing health conditions that often have unique and/or multiple triggers such as migraines.

In theory, any information that can be captured by sensors and communicated electronically can work with e-skin. That might include information about your stress levels and mood. You should be able to access information such as text messages and calendar information in the same way as wearable devices do now. Perhaps someday you’ll be able to read a book, watch a video, and communicate with and control smart machines with a gesture or just a thought.

Someya said, in a press release, that his team designed the e-skin in part because smartphones are too bulky.

“What would the world be like if we had displays that could adhere to our bodies and even show our emotions or level of stress or unease?” Someya wrote in the release.

“In addition to not having to carry a device with us at all times, they might enhance the way we interact with those around us or add a whole new dimension to how we communicate.”

 

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