Highly elastic electric skin could be a game-changer for healthcare

19 Feb 2018

Electronic skin gets a thumbs up from the research team that developed it. Image: 2018 Takao Someya Research Group

Japanese researchers have developed a highly elastic electric skin that could prove very useful for hospitals.

Anyone who has been a hospital in-patient for a prolonged period of time can tell of the discomfort felt with some of the monitoring devices hooked up to various parts of the body.

But what if we could replace a lot of these devices with a simple wearable that could fit on many parts of the body quite comfortably?

That’s what a team of researchers at the University of Tokyo is trying to achieve with the development of what it calls ‘skin electronics’.

The ultra-thin, highly elastic display can accurately show the moving waveform of an electrocardiogram recorded by a breathable, on-skin electrode sensor.

With a wireless communication module on board, the sensor can then transmit biometric data to the cloud or a smartphone, building upon advances in semiconductor technology by allowing electrocardiogram waveforms to display on the screen in real time.

Stretches 45pc more than original length

The research team’s device also takes things a step further by giving significantly more information for the elderly or the infirm, who might have difficulty operating and obtaining data from existing devices and interfaces.

The device consists of a 16 by 24 array of microLEDs and stretchable wiring mounted on a rubber sheet, which allows for it to grow by as much as 45pc of its original length. It can be worn by a patient for a week without causing any inflammation.

It is far more resistant to the wear and tear of stretching than previous wearable displays and is built on a novel structure that minimises the stress resulting from stretching on the juncture of hard materials.

In fact, the skin is so durable and stable in air that not a single pixel failed in the matrix-type display while attached snugly onto the skin even though it was continuously subjected to the stretching and contracting motion of the body.

Three years to market

With help from Dai Nippon Printing, the research team said its device was made with tried-and-true methods used in the mass production of electronics, which will make it much easier to produce and thus more feasible for mainstream use.

“The current ageing society requires user-friendly wearable sensors for monitoring patient vitals in order to reduce the burden on patients and family members providing nursing care,” said Prof Takao Someya, who led the research.

“Our system could serve as one of the long-awaited solutions to fulfil this need, which will ultimately lead to improving the quality of life for many.”

If all goes according to plan, the device will be brought to market within the next three years, with increased reliability of the stretchable device to be achieved through structural improvements.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic