If you love your Fitbit, get ready to have your socks knocked off by some new technology that will turn your skin into an electronic display.
The new ultra-thin "electronic skin" comes to us from researchers in Tokyo. And while it is still in its very early stages of development, it's easy to envision myriad possibilities for its use.
At 3 micrometers in thickness, the electronic skin is 13 times thinner than a human hair. Now that's thin! Researchers have tried to make uber-thin electronic LED displays before but they were always too flimsy, too hot or too power-hungry to be viable for use as a wearable form of tech.
The Tokyo team overcame these obstacles by developing what they call a "passivation layer," which acts as a protective coating for the LED display that allowed them to make the display very thin without subjecting the components to damage every time your skin stretches or bends. All of that protection meant less heat — which is important when you are talking about applying the tech right to your skin — and longer battery life.
In a study published in the journal Science Advances, the research team details the use of the "e-skin" to read a patient's oxygen levels and display them on the skin for four days per use. That's certainly an interesting start. With a few more tweaks, it's easy to see how these skins may soon become the latest trend in fitness trackers, displaying steps walked, calories burned and heart rate directly on your skin like a wearable temporary tattoo.
Could they also be used to store and sort other valuable health information like cholesterol levels, blood pressure or white blood cell counts? Probably. Maybe at future health care check ups, your doctor will simply scan your wrist to see what's actually going on in your body. Could they be used to display stress levels? Or even emotions? That could get awkward on a date. Could they measure a person's blood alcohol levels and send out a warning before she even thinks about getting behind the wheel? Or alert a nearby police officer if she does? Could they become mandatory drug-screening devices?
Looking beyond the health data, an electronic skin could be the next level of wearable computing, allowing users to send texts, Google restaurant reviews, ask Siri for directions or watch YouTube videos at the touch of a button (or the flick of a wrist).
"We think that functionalizing the skin may replace the smartphone in the future," said Takao Someya, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Tokyo in an interview with Live Science. "When you carry an iPhone, it is a bulky device. But if you functionalize your own skin, you don't need to carry anything, and it's easy to receive information anywhere, anytime."
For now, the electronic skin is still in development, but it's exciting and maybe even a little scary to think about how it could be used in the future.