In the future, remotely monitoring health conditions may not longer require a bulky connected device, but “Smart Skin.” MC10 Inc (Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.), a company developing next-generation electronic systems, is working with the University of Illinois to develop smart skin, and epidermal electronic system containing transistors, sensors, receivers and transmitters that can be bent, stretched and wrinkled just like real skin.
Smart skin is 50 microns thick- about the same thickness as a strand of hair- and has electronics inside that are made of metal and silicon. These electronics are packaged in a silicone rubber, silk, fabric or other material depending on the medical needs of a patient.
The epidermal electronic system can be stuck on the skin -similar to a temporary tattoo- to monitor health activity in areas such as the heart, brain and muscles. For applications using a shorter duration of time, adhesives are not necessary.
“The reason you can get away without an adhesive for certain durations is because it is so thin that it matches the modules of the skin,” says Gilman Callsen, marketing manager and co-founder of MC10. “If you were to think about a rigid plastic box and trying to put it on your skin, the reason you need an adhesive to keep it there is because it pops off due to it forcing resistance at the surface. If it’s thin enough and matches the movement at the skin, then you get away from all that tension that’s caused by your motion. It moves with you.”
Depending on the duration of each epidermal electronic system, the smart skin can be applied multiple ways. For example, if a heartbeat is being monitored for a week, than a temporary tattoo that is designed to adhere for a week can be used. If a patient needs to monitor muscle activity over a longer duration- say a year- then the technology can be implemented into a piece of clothing, according to Callsen.
The power supply of the system is also application specific. According to Callsen, there are some cases when you absolutely need a power source, such as when someone needs constant monitoring and information needs to be transmitted wirelessly to another device. However, there are other devices where the power consumption is so low that ambient sources of energy can be used to power the technology, such as solar or thermoelectric energy. The body itself can also be used as a source of energy, both thermal and mechanical, depending on the duration of the application.
One of the key advantages of smart skin is comfort to the wearer. People can go from wearing a big object to something that is virtually invisible, says Callsen.
Another advantage of Smart Skin is that the data quality is higher because of adhesion. According to Callsen, in other sensing modalities noise has been picked up into the system because of motion artifacts, as in the sensor was moving around while on the wearer. With Smart Skin, since it moves with the body, it decreases these artifacts.
Smart Skin is not yet available, but according to Callsen, MC10 is actively pursuing the commercialization of the product. Smart Skin is being developed with funding by the National Science Foundation and the United States Air Force.