The Apple Watch is an enticing product, but it hasn’t revolutionized personal health the way its cheerleaders have promised. It can track steps, but it can’t see how your body is moving. It can measure your heart rate, but it can’t see how you are healing. The Apple Watch really only scratches the surface of what we imagine for intimate, wearable electronics.
But a new research project out of Carnegie Mellon is nearly as easy to put on as an Apple Watch and a whole lot more capable and customizable. Dubbed ElectroDermis, it’s a spandex bandage topped with stretchable, electric wiring and the sorts of circuits and sensors you find in any mobile electronic. “We were inspired by traditional medical bandages, as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, soft and conformal, and can be placed anywhere on the body” for more accurate readings, says the paper’s co-lead Eric Markvicka.
ElectroDermis takes customization a step further. By using a 3D scan from a smartphone app, the team can capture the shape of any part of your body, from your knee to your ear, and use proprietary software and off-the-shelf hardware to produce a custom ElectroDermis to fit and flex on that spot perfectly. It can monitor joints in real time, and sneak into any of the strange protrusions and valleys of our bodies where most bandages, let alone electronics, would never reach.
We’ve seen flexible, skin-based circuits before—like this watershed research out of University of Illinois, and this design from the University of Tokyo, which can be applied like temporary tattoos. We’ve even seen rubbery postage stamps that double as skin circuits. ElectroDermis isn’t as discreet as these solutions, but it’s a lot more rugged for addressing the motions of everyday life. “We use similar wavy, serpentine architectures to enable the copper circuit wiring to be soft and elastically deformable,” says Markvicka of these other projects. “In contrast, we assemble the stretchable electronic circuit on a spandex-blend fabric layer . . . to increasing robustness, durability, and enable the electronic bandage to be reusable.”
That all makes it easy to imagine wearing ElectroDermis as you might a typical knee or wrist brace, albeit with a thin layer of tape to affix it to your skin. The ergonomics and durability alone aren’t what makes ElectroDermis so promising, though. Using various sensors, the team has already proven several practical use cases for the ElectroDermis.
With a few accelerometers, placed on your knee, the system can track very specific motions of the joint. Placed on your neck with a mic, and it can automatically distinguish the food you swallow, just from the sound it makes down your gullet (which could make diet tracking a thing of the past). Fit with a single-pixel camera, and it can look at a wound, even in a very complicated geometrical area like your ear cartilage, and signal with an LED light when the skin is a safe color again. (That use case is less for your everyday scratch, and more for people with chronic diseases like diabetes who have to ward off skin ulcers.) These aren’t just ideas the team has for ElectroDermis; they’re prototypes the team has built with real potential for rehab and healthcare.
The production of a single ElectroDermis sticker takes an hour, and costs $30. Of course, they don’t need to be produced bespoke for your anatomy. They could scale in a few set sizes for most people. The team estimates it could cost closer to $15 to produce an ElectroDermis with scale—that’s the price of an off-the-shelf knee brace today.
The technology has limitations, of course. It’s not washable or waterproof, and while the wiring is flexible, the individual sensors and circuits are still stiff boards. In any case, maybe ElectroDermis will be the sort of technology that makes wearables essential, and maybe it won’t. But progress in this entire area of wearable electronics has been remarkably quick over the past few years. And it’s easy to imagine, the first company to find just the right value proposition in these wearables won’t just have the next iPhone on its hands—it’ll have the next Band-Aid.