A team of engineers today announced a discovery that could change the world of electronics forever. Called an “epidermal electronic system” (EES), it’s basically an electronic circuit mounted on your skin, designed to stretch, flex, and twist — and to take input from the movements of your body.
EES is a leap forward for wearable technologies, and has potential applications ranging from medical diagnostics to video game control and accelerated wound-healing. Engineers John Rogers and Todd Coleman, who worked on the discovery, tell io9 it’s a huge step towards erasing the divide that separates machine and human.
Coleman and Rogers say they developed EES to forego the hard and rigid electronic “wafer” format of traditional electronics in favor of a softer, more dynamic platform.
To accomplish this, their team brought together scientists from several labs to develop “filamentary serpentine” (threadlike and squiggly) circuitry. When this circuitry is mounted on a thin, rubber substrate with elastic properties similar to skin, the result is a flexible patch that can bend and twist, or expand and contract, all without affecting electronic performance.
This demonstrates the resilience of the EES patch, and how easily it can be applied. The patch (comprised of the circuitry and rubber substrate) is first mounted on a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic, then applied to the skin with water like a temporary tattoo.
How Will We Wear Our Second Skin?
So what can an EES really do for us? The short answer is: a lot. In the paper describing their new technology, published in this week’s issue of Science, the researchers illustrated the adaptability of their concept by demonstrating functionality in a wide array of electronic components, including biometric sensors, LEDs, transistors, radio frequency capacitors, wirelessantennas, and even conductive coils and solar cells for power.
According to Rogers, the electronic skin has already been shown to monitor patients’ health measurements as effectively as conventional state-of-the-art electrodes that require bulky pads, straps, and irritating adhesive gels. “The fidelity of the measurement is equal to the best existing technology that is out there today, but in a very unique skin-like form,” he explained.
What’s more, the electronic skin’s unique properties allow it to do things that existing biometric sensors simply can’t touch.
Coleman’s statement touches on what is perhaps this most important thing about today’s announcement, namely the precedent it sets for future technologies that aim to combine the organismal with the synthetic.
“The blurring of electronics and biology is really the key point here,” said Northwestern University’s Yonggang Huang, with whom Rogers and Coleman collaborated. “All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid. Biology is soft, elastic. It’s two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them.”
Looking to the future, Rogers echoes his colleague’s sentiments. Describing what he envisions for his research group in the coming years, he said:
We would like to expand the functionality such that the devices not only seamlessly integrate with the human body in a mechanical sense, but that they also communicate and interact with the tissue in modes that go beyond electrons and photons (the ‘currency’ of semiconductor device technologies), to the level of fluids and biomolecules (i.e. the ‘currency’ of biology). We are hoping, in this way, to blur the distinction between electronics and the human body, in ways that can advance human health.