‘Smart skin’ biomedical breakthough

Smart skin, an ultra-thin electronic platform that sticks on the human body like a temporary tattoo, has been developed by a US-based engineering collaboration.

The “epidermal electronic system”, whose development was funded by the National Science Foundation and US Air Force, is packed with micro-circuitry including transistors, sensors, transmitters and receivers. Yet it can bend, wrinkle and stretch just like real skin, without any damaging any of these components.

Early applications of the project are likely to be biomedical – for example measuring the activity of the human heart, muscles or brain. It will give wearers freedom of movement, avoiding the relatively obtrusive and uncomfortable methods, such as conducting gel, adhesive tape and wires, used today to attach devices such as electrodes to people.

The system could eventually become an all-purpose human-computer interface, according to its developers, who unveil their research in Friday’s edition of the journal Science. Patients with muscular or neurological disease could then use the system to communicate their thoughts directly to computers.

Already the researchers have shown that a prototype device, applied to the human throat, can distinguish simple speech on the basis of muscle movements when the wearer mouths the words without speaking aloud. They have also used electronic skin to control a video game.

“We threw everything in our bag of tricks onto that platform and then added a few other new ideas on top of those to show that we could make it work,” said John Rogers of the University of Illinois, the project leader.

“We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer,” added his colleague Todd Coleman. “The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable.”

Smart skin is only 50 microns thick – less than a human hair – and so light that it stays attached to real skin for hours without glue or adhesive, through surface forces.

Its power consumption is so low that no battery will be needed for most applications. The device can draw energy from its environment, the movements of its wearer or miniature solar collectors.

“The blurring of electronics and biology is really the key point here,” said Yonggang Huang, engineering professor at Northwestern University, Chicago. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid. Biology is soft, elastic. This is a way to integrate them.”

A company called mc10 has been set up in Cambridge, Massachusetts to commercialise some of the smart skin technology. Its first product is under development with Reebok International, the sportwear company, with a possible launch in 2012 – this may be an athletic performance monitor though neither partner is willing to divulge details.

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