Skin Computers Could Be the Next Big Thing in Wearables

Closer than ever

  • A new computer interface devised by Cornell University researchers is worn on your skin. 
  • There's growing interest in "skin computers," which could be used for anything from monitoring your health to fashion accessories. 
  • Skin computers could one day be used to make virtual reality even more realistic.
skin computer on someone's neck

Cornell University

You might soon wear your computer on your skin instead of relegating it to a pocket, backpack, or desktop. 

Cornell University researchers have developed a skin-tight computer interface that's easy to attach/detach and can be used for anything from health monitoring to fashion. It's part of a growing interest in skin-based wearable computers. 

"Skin wearable computing is primarily useful for its ability to accurately capture human motion and physiological state, including health vitals, while allowing the wearer to remain mobile and perform daily tasks," Carmel Majidi, director of the Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Skin Tight

The Cornell scientists recently published a paper on a plug-and-play wearable computing system meant for those with little or no technical expertise. The kits are made with temporary tattoo paper, silicone textile stabilizer, and water, creating a multi-layer thin film structure the group calls "skin cloth." The layered material can be cut into different shapes and fitted with miniaturized, flexible, printed circuit board modules to perform various tasks.

Skin computers can provide "very accurate sensing of a lot of physiological signals," Cindy (Hsin-Liu) Kao, an assistant professor of human-centered design at Cornell's College of Human Ecology, and the study's senior author, told Lifewire via email. "And this lends itself to a lot of interesting and very useful applications in terms of health and well-being. And also beyond health and sensing because our tattoos are also such a prominent part of our culture."

Kao said that one day, skin computers could express your mood through the change of an eyeshadow tattoo, adding, "and we can also see that there's a lot of potential for different forms of fashion, right, and expression."

Over the past decade, research labs from universities worldwide have produced a vast range of skin wearable computing systems, Majidi said. The skin computers have been proposed for applications ranging from tactile sensing and motion tracking to ultra thin-film bioelectrodes capable of sensing cardiac, neural, and muscle activity. His research group has produced a variety of sticker-like wearable electronics and is commercializing them through Lifeware Labs.

"In addition, there has been a growing variety of commercial products for skin wearable health monitoring," he added. "As with the technologies coming out of academic research labs, these devices are fully wireless, thin, flexible, soft, and adhere to the body like a sticker or band-aid."

Building skin computers is a challenging task. Because they need to be thin, flexible, and lightweight, it's difficult to pack in cooling fans, heat exchangers, and other bulky hardware for managing the heat produced by computing chips and circuitry, Majidi said. Scientists must develop soft and thermally conductive materials and miniaturized lightweight technologies for managing heat within these wearable devices.

"This hasn't been a significant issue in early forms of skin wearables that have limited computing functionality or requirements," he added. "However, it could become an important challenge as skin wearables become more sophisticated in their computing needs, especially with more complex multimodal sensing, signal processing, AI, and communication."

The Future of Skin?

Skin-based computers might one day replace some functions of smartphones, predicted University of Chicago assistant professor of computer science Pedro Lopes, who studies wearable computers, in an email interview with Lifewire. 

"Some preliminary types of dermal patches have demonstrated that not only touch sensors can be added to the patch but even lights," he added. "These components like touch sensors and lights can act, respectively, as the touchscreen and display that we currently have in our smartphones, except directly integrated with the body."

people researching and making skin computers

Cornell University

Wearable computer skin patches might one day detect health conditions and deliver the right medicine at the right time, too, much like how wearable insulin pumps and glucose meters can adjust the user's insulin automatically, without any manual intervention, Lopes said.

Majidi also believes that in the future, skin-based haptics, devices that relay physical sensations from computers, may be used with virtual reality. He noted that there's also been recent interest in self-powered wearable devices that can harvest energy from body heat or limb motion.  

"These energy harvesting devices will help to overcome one of the big challenges with skin wearables related to sustaining continuous power and extending battery life," he said.

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