High-Tech Tattoos Can Transfer Data From Skin to Smartphone

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Metallic temporary tattoos outfitted with interface technology might just be the future of fashion.

Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, a Ph.D. student at MIT, collaborated with Microsoft Research in 2016 to create DuoSkin, which are temporary tattoos made using gold leaf metal that can be customized into any design you choose.

Credit: MIT Media Lab

“There’s no fashion statement greater than being able to change how your skin looks,” Kao said about her fashion-forward product.

Gold leaf is not only fashionable, but also a relatively cheap material that’s skin-friendly, making DuoSkin an accessory many people can afford. The creators of DuoSkin believe that on-skin electronics, such as their metallic temporary tattoos, will soon be user-friendly, popular body decorations.

“This [DuoSkin] is something we purposely wanted to make accessible to anyone,” said Kao.

Credit: MIT Media Lab

These ornamental body accents can be used for three different functions: input, output and communication. The first tattoo, input, could be used as a trackpad to control a screen — such as your smartphone — to do things like adjust the volume on a speaker.

The output tattoo can be programmed so that the color changes based on your mood or body temperature. The third design allows you to embed a chip, which will transfer data from your skin to another device.

Credit: MIT Media Lab

If the functions of these tattoos are not for you, they can also be purely aesthetic. For instance, you could embed LED lights into a flashing tattoo necklace, making it a unique and stylish accessory for summer music festivals or a night out on the town.

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In January of 2017, the DuoSkin made its New York Fashion Week debut, when fashion designer Christopher Bevans incorporated it into his show for his Dyne brand. Bevans, a former MIT media lab director’s fellow, thought that DuoSkin’s fashion-forward design and concept would be an interesting addition to his men’s fashion wear brand, which features wireless technology in the clothing.

Credit: MIT Media Lab

“It was an intriguing proposal, as DuoSkin is often viewed as having a female aesthetic, and Chris would be showing a menswear clothing line,” Kao said. “At first, I was unsure whether to do it or not but after some thinking, I decided it would be an interesting design experiment to customize DuoSkin for a menswear fashion show — focusing on the ability to personalize it for any wearer, be they high-end or street style. That’s a crucial aspect of DuoSkin.”

Up against a tight deadline, Kao quickly customized DuoSkin for the brand. She made 10 NFC (Near Field Communication) tags and had them delivered just days before the fashion show.

“On January 31, we caught a bus to see our creation debut at New York Fashion Week in Chris’ DYNE show,” Kao said. “It was an amazing experience to see DuoSkin in the context of a real-world event.”

DuoSkin might be a bit of a novelty item at the moment, but it quite possibly may be the next big fashion fad for any gender, cultural background and personal aesthetic preference, Kao reflected on her experience.

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Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.