Innovation

MIT and Microsoft create tattoos that turn your skin into a UI for your phone

New DuoSkin temporary tattoos use inexpensive gold metal leaf that enables sensing touch input, displaying output, and wireless communication.

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Researchers from MIT Media Lab and Microsoft created DuoSkin tattoos, which are temporary tattoos that allow users to control phones and store data on their skin.

Image: MIT

Forget smart watches and bracelets—new temporary tattoos allow users to control mobile devices, display information, and even store data on their skin.

DuoSkin tattoos, created by MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research, use trendy, inexpensive gold metal leaf for three types of on-skin interfaces: Sensing touch input, displaying output, and wireless communication. In a new paper, to be presented next month at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers 2016, the researchers explain how the material is durable, skin-safe, and conductive. It is also available at any craft store.

Users can apply the device to their body with a wet cloth, similar to any other temporary tattoo.

"We believe that skin serves as the bridge between the physical and digital realms, enabling users to leverage the personal aesthetic principle that is often missing in today's wearable tech," the paper stated.

The fabrication process is fairly simple: First, you design a stencil with any graphic design software, and cut the pattern out of tattoo paper and vinyl. Then you place the gold leaf layer on top to create conductivity, and attach surface-mount electronics.

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"Inspired by fashion and amplified by function, conductive skin coverings have great potential because they can be cheap and temporary," said Ben Shneiderman, a computer sciences professor at the University of Maryland and lead author of Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction. "Then, they enable clever combinations with wearable and pocketable devices."

Participants in a DuoSkin study were able to control music on a smartphone with near-field communication (NFC) via a chip on the tattoos. The tattoos also incorporate temperature: Researchers designed an app called Couple Harmony, in which one person wears a thermochromatic fire tattoo that shows white when the other person indicates that they are angry by pressing a "mood button" on their forearm.

Today, on-skin user interfaces are primarily used in the medical field, and involve expensive, elaborate machinery. Shneiderman said this new technology could enable spray-on devices that are electro-conductive and electroluminescent, and could display information such as time, date, heart rate, and body temperature.

"Thinking outside the box when it comes to UI is a good idea," said Parham Aarabi, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto. In some ways, it's a solution looking for a problem right now, he added. But, as we move toward more smart devices, having the ability to activate certain things using a tattoo could make life a little simpler. "I don't know that consumers are looking for it yet, but in five to 10 years it may be able to solve some of our problems," Aarabi said.

This type of UI could also become particularly useful as our devices get smaller, said Rob Jacob, professor of computer science at Tufts University.

"A smart watch screen doesn't have room to input very much, so the tattoo could provide some additional auxiliary area, without carrying a larger device," Jacob said. "I think human-computer interaction is all about improving the communication bandwidth between the user and the computer, and this provides a new way to add more room for communication."

DuoSkin is not the only smart tattoo on the market. But, the low cost of printing this version might give the idea more staying power.

"We believe that, in the future, on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified," the paper said. "Instead, they will converge towards the user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations, forming a DuoSkin integrated to the extent that it has seemingly disappeared."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Researchers from MIT Media Lab and Microsoft created DuoSkin tattoos, which are temporary tattoos that allow users to control phones and store data on their skin.
  2. The tattoos are made from gold metal leaf, which is inexpensive and readily available at craft stores. It makes a good UI due to its durable, skin-safe, conductive nature.
  3. This type of UI may be useful to pair with small devices, or for monitoring health, experts say.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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