Transistors. Resistors. Capacitors. Inductors. Diodes. RF antennas. Inductive coils. Lithium ion batteries. These are the components of microprocessors, wireless communications, and energy storage. Today you’ll find them in your phone. Tomorrow, you may wear them right on your body.
Research by John Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois, has woven each of these technological building blocks into incredible skin-wearable circuits. They stick on your skin with a stamp. They can stretch and flex with the natural movements of your body, lasting about two weeks until they flake off from natural exfoliation. And since they’re in direct contact with the skin, they can integrate with you more seamlessly than the iPhone, Nike+ Fuelband or any other wearable product that’s been conceived to date.
“Our aim is to enable hardware that integrates much more naturally with the body,” Rogers says. “Conventional hard electronics, built on silicon wafers in the usual way, are unacceptable for generalized, everyday continuous use and monitoring, due to extreme mismatches in shape, weight and stiffness from tissues of the body.”
In other words, we’re squishy, rounded beings living in a world filled with hard, rectangular objects. But it’s more than a comfort issue. By modifying electronics to live on our skin, Rogers can seamlessly measure ECGs, EEGs, temperature, mechanical stress, and galvanic skin measurements. Or if the Nike+ Fuelband were reimagined with this technology, it could measure your heart rate, body impact and hydration levels, from which it could reason a slew of new performance metrics.
Crazier still, Roger’s “20-year vision” is to create devices that “actively augment health in vital organs.” One project his team is working on is an “artificial epicardium,” which could wrap around the heart’s surface to monitor heartbeat and prevent arrhythmias. Another is a set of “brain monitoring sheets” for epileptics.
Some of this technology is a few years off. Other projects are decades beyond us. But Rogers’s company, MC10, will release their first commercial product with Reebok later this year. Called the CheckLight, it fits into a soft skullcap to measure impacts during sports (as an early warning sign of concussions.)
“It does not represent the full, ‘epidermal’ embodiment of the core ideas, but it gets MC10 on a roadmap to that type of technology,” Rogers says. “I believe [Reebok] will make epidermal skin devices available in a couple of years or so.”