Updated: Aug 22, 2018
By Henry Mitchell
People often use tattoos to signal their beliefs, their priorities, and the groups they belong to. Soon, people will be able to use their tattoos to monitor their health.
Researchers in the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group are developing tattoos that can be used as interactive displays, showing health data such as acidity, sodium levels, and glucose levels. These biosensors would be applied just like any other tattoo, and would allow people to monitor their hydration, and allow diabetics to keep track of their glucose levels without performing finger pricks, and check their skin’s acidity levels with nothing but a glance.
The tattoos (which the researchers refer to as “the Dermal Abyss” or simply “d-abyss”) change color based on the chemicals around them. For example, the ink the tattoos used to show skin pH levels changes from pink to purple with increasing acidity, while the glucose biosensor will turn from orange to blue in the case of low blood sugar. The inks are still in the testing phase, and have so far been tried only on pig skin, but have shown promising results.
These tattoos could be another tool in the toolbox that is currently being developed for personal health tracking. Where some people have wearables like Fitbits or smartwatches, others could have their sensors right in their arms. These technologies could even work together. Instead of needing to perform several finger pricks per day, someone with diabetes could get a tattoo on their wrist and wear a smartwatch over it. The smartwatch would monitor the color of their tattoos, and could alert them if their blood sugar got outside of an acceptable range. This switch from an active checking system to passive monitoring via tattoo would improve quality of care, while simultaneously mitigating a lot of the inconveniences of current methods.
In recent years, we have all had increasing access to our own health data. We started with simple step counters, and then moved on to smart wearables. We are now approaching the era of complete integration, knowing what is happening in our bodies to an unprecedented extent.
Vega, K., Jiang, N., Liu, X., Kan, V., Barry, N., Maes, P., ... Paradiso, J. (2017). The dermal abyss: Interfacing with the skin by tattooing biosensors. In Proceedings of the 2017 acm international symposium on wearable computers (pp. 138–145). ISWC ’17. Maui, Hawaii: ACM. doi:10.1145/3123021.3123039
Artwork by Mykl Ambros