Digital skin closer to reality after ‘stretchy’ circuits created

30 May 2016

Wearables were never destined to stay on the wrist. At least not in the way many consumers may have expected.

Rather, that was just the only way technology, in the mid-part of the decade, could interact with the human body in a non-cumbersome way.

Wristbands are a stepping stone towards far closer, more encompassing devices, according to a whole swathe of technological advances made in the past 12 months.

Last October, scientists developed a ‘skin-inspired organic digital mechanoreceptor’ that could give people with prosthetic limbs a type of feeling that is otherwise, obviously, lacking.

Tactile feedback for prosthetics: the future.

By March, a flexible, stretchable, even tunable ‘meta-skin’ was developed by US researchers, wearable skin for aircraft that acts as a type of ‘invisibility cloak’.

Within weeks, tiny, micropower, nano-batteries were finally created to support e-skin structures on the human body, before a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo developed an ultra-thin and ultra-flexible wearable display.

Smart, digital skin

Now, a team of University of Wisconsin engineers has created what they claim to be the world’s fastest, stretchable, wearable integrated circuits. The pursuit of ‘smart’ skin is closer to completion.

Fabricated in interlocking segments like a 3-D puzzle, the new integrated circuits could be used in wearable electronics that adhere to the skin like temporary tattoos. Because the circuits increase wireless speed, these systems could allow health care staff to monitor patients remotely, without the use of cables and cords – via WISC/Yei Hwan Jung and Juhwan Lee

Fabricated in interlocking segments like a 3-D puzzle, the new integrated circuits could be like temporary tattoos – via WISC/Yei Hwan Jung and Juhwan Lee

Better yet, the timing is all important, with Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma’s team looking at microwave radio frequencies, with wavelength sizes between a millimeter and a metre, using frequencies directly into the 5G range.

The next generation of wearable devices developed to tune in with the next wave of connectivity capacities. This device, which Ma calls an ‘epidermal electronic system’, could allow healthcare staff to monitor patients remotely and wirelessly.

The idea for this particular form of e-skin came from twisted telephone cables, containing two ultra-tiny intertwining power transmission lines in repeating S-curves.

“We’ve found a way to integrate high-frequency active transistors into a useful circuit that can be wireless,” said Ma. “This is a platform. This opens the door to lots of new capabilities.”

Hand image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic