Prefixing the term "smart" to an otherwise unintelligible piece of object has been quite the trend, with glasses, watches, and even jackets getting the tech treatment. But what if it was applied to something so far removed from technology — tattoos, maybe?
Smart Tattoo: How Would It Work?
A group of researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done exactly that. They created the Dermal Abyss project, a proof-of-concept "that presents a novel approach to bio-interfaces in which the body surface is rendered an interactive display."
What does that mean, exactly? Did they embed a screen on a person's skin? Well, not exactly. The researchers replaced traditional tattoo ink with biosensors that can change colors if they detect variations in the interstitial fluids — a solution enveloping the tissue cells — of the skin. This means the tattoo could help monitor fluctuating health conditions such as dehydration or increased blood glucose, according to the group's joint study.
The biosensors in the ink respond to concentrated amounts of sodium, glucose and hydrogen ions. The group has already developed two kinds of green ink — one which can change to brown upon detection of increased blood sugar levels, and another which glows more strongly under blue light upon detection of increased sodium concentration, as International Business Times reports.
It's a groundbreaking idea, but it has plenty of challenges and limitations. For one, the group noted it still needs to expand the range of colors of the biosensors to enable higher-resolution information. They also need to make sure it's safe and not toxic, and doesn't interfere with normal tissue function. Finally, they need to be sure the biosensors will stay in the skin for a long time.
There's hope it could be realized. Nan Jiang, one of the study's authors, said the smart tattoos could be applied to athletes to monitor their health levels, and even astronauts to monitor their condition while in space.
But tattoos that reveal one's health condition could be a potential privacy concern — an issue the team seeks to address by looking for ways to make the ink invisible. This means that the person could be able to monitor the changes in the ink by casting light — perhaps from a smartphone — in its direction.
Dermal Abyss Is Still Just A Proof-Of-Concept, Though
The group noted that Dermal Abyss is a research project, and there are currently no plans to develop it as a product or go into clinical trials. Still, it imagines Dermal Abyss to replace traditional methods of, say, diabetes monitoring, which currently requires the person to draw blood by pricking their finger 3 to 10 times a day. In a sense, the body tattoo becomes an interface, telling the diabetic person at any given moment whether they need a shot of Insulin.