In popular culture, tattoos are often associated with artists, bikers, or nights of drunken revelry. Tattoos are criticized for their expense and permanence, and receive the bad reputation of being an unnecessary vanity. However, this ancient art, practiced by humans for over 5,000 years, is now offering researchers new and cutting-edge ways to approach biomedical engineering.
New uses are being developed for tattoos thanks to researchers at Harvard Medical School and MIT’s Media Lab. Scientists are working on bio-sensitive ink for tattoos that can monitor certain health issues and have opened a number of possibilities with the interactive art. Katia Vega, researcher for project DermalAbyss, has created three different types of biosensor inks that measure the shifts of interstitial fluid in your skin; they change color based on the levels of glucose, sodium, or pH in the body. This process could be used to make medical diagnoses or give people with medical conditions necessary data about the body.
Researchers on this project wished to bypass the normal drawbacks with current wearable monitoring devices. A constant reoccurring issue with wearable monitoring devices currently is that they don’t seamlessly integrate with the body. The device must always be worn by the wearer, not to mention the concern of a short battery life and the need for wireless connectivity. These issues are erased with the color-based interface of bio-sensitive tattoo ink. According to the MIT Media Lab, “by featuring tissue cells with interactive properties, the skin can change its color, light intensity, or structure to display information. Hence, the skin cells become a pixel screen to be decoded by the user, other viewers, or cameras.”
This development could especially work wonders for diabetics. Currently, many diabetics need to monitor their glucose by pricking their skin three to 10 times a day. This new development would eliminate this painful process. Instead of piercing their skin daily, diabetics would be able to just check a tattoo to monitor their need for insulin. The tattoo would then change colors—in this case, from brown to blue—based on their glucose levels. A second type of monitor that reads the pH levels in the body changes from pink to purple, while a different type of pH sensor fluoresces at a higher intensity under UV light. With the on-going advancements of science and technology, tattoos are becoming more than merely an art form. Perhaps, having the ability to change our everyday lives and routines.
This is not the first time someone has experimented with skin-based interactive displays. In earlier years, researcher John Rogers and his firm MC10 have developed flexible electronic circuits that monitored the wearer’s health and stuck to the skin like a temporary tattoo. The concept was to create a system that could monitor patients without having to tether them to a bunch of large machines. The Biostamp was made up of a thin electronic mesh that stretches with the skin and monitors hydration, temperature, and strain. MIT’s Media lab has been working with skin-based interactive displays for quite some time. In the past, the lab has introduced creations like the DuoSkin, a temporary tattoo technology that enables people to create an interface on their own skin. Inspired by metallic “flash tattoos,” engineers were able to produce three classes of DuoSkin that functioned as inputs, outputs, and communication devices.
Overall, tattoos are a great outlet for art and self expression, but those are not the only possibilities. With the advancement of science and technology, tattoos are becoming more than an art form. Rather than wearing a health monitor, people can instead get a tattoo to track their body’s well-being. The science also offers breakthrough technology for diabetics, as the body art has the capability of monitoring their glucose level. In the years ahead, we will see plenty of advancements be made within the field of skin-based interactive displays. As these new technologies continue to progress, so will the use of art, fashion, and aesthetic choices in new medical science.