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MIT's Next Breakthrough Interface? Temporary Tattoos

Inspired by popular gold leaf temporary tattoos, MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research teamed up on a crafty new wearable interface.

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We’ve seen stick-on circuits capable of putting a phone on your finger, and while they’re certainly incredible to behold, they aren't accessible outside of world-class research labs and production lines.

But a technology called DuoSkin, by MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research, could enable anyone to create custom, wearable circuits—and apply them as easily as a temporary gold leaf tattoo. And not in 10 or 20 years, but using craft store materials, today. In a new paper being presented at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers next month, the research team details how you can shape circuits using any graphic design software, cut the pattern out of a sandwich of tattoo paper and vinyl, and then coat that vinyl with gold leaf. Not only is gold leaf en vogue, as far as temporary tattoos go; gold leaf also makes the tattoo conductive to electricity, and your touch.

The result is an impossibly thin temporary tattoo that’s applied to your skin with a wet wash cloth like any other. Once there, it’s capable of adding to your body touch pads, buttons, personal radio IDs, or even glowing LED displays. The DuoSkin tattoo can allow you to swipe and tap around your phone’s music and unlock doors or turnstiles protected by NFC. In one example, a pair of heart tattoos link up, so with the touch a button, you can change the color of the tattoo of your significant other (perhaps to signify if you were in a bad mood in the most passive aggressive way possible).

Of course, the practical uses of cheap, temporarily wearable technologies seem endless. It’s not hard to imagine the utility of such a tattoo on a patient at the hospital. Your identity could be stuck right to your body thanks to NFC technology. Even something as simple as calling the nurse could be miniaturized from a bulky remote to a thin button on your skin. And given that the team has successfully embedded heat-sensitive pigments, as well as LEDs, these tattoos could be specialized to signal all sorts of issues to health care providers.

Then again, if the context of health care doesn't sound terribly exciting, there’s always Coachella. Really! Because while that may sound snarky, enabling such a wide swath of use cases is really the point of the whole project.

"It is our vision that future on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified; but they will converge toward user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations," the paper concludes, "forming a DuoSkin integrated to an extent it has seemingly disappeared."

[All Images: courtesy MIT Media Lab]

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