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The innovation of smart watches attempted to increase accessibility and eliminate the difficulty of carrying around large, awkward smartphones and tablets, but they’ve failed to gain much traction in the market. The next concept on the horizon and one that would seem to have come straight out of a science fiction movie is artificial electronic skin (e-skin): turning a part of your body into a computer with your skin as the fully interactive touch screen.
The possibility of linking this “computer” to your brain would be the next step of this revolutionary concept, but on the table for now is the more practical task of developing e-skin.
Researchers have already made leaps and bounds in the arena of creating stretchable, flexible and bendable electronic circuits, which can be placed on the skin to effectively transform it into an interactive touch screen surface. As early as 2004, Japanese and American researchers developed a pressure sensor circuit that had been manufactured from thinned and stretched strips of silicon, which could be placed on the forearm. The challenge here, of course, is that silicon isn’t inherently flexible and so they had to go back to the drawing board to investigate the possibility of using organic materials (such as conductive forms of carbon or special plastics) to create the electronic circuits for flexible e-skin.
The Building Blocks of e-Skin
One of the biggest challenges faced by researchers has been innovating a technology that mimics the flexibility and stretch-ability of skin. Typical e-skin is made up of a variety of electronic components, from sensors and flexible transistors to organic LEDs and solar (photovoltaic) cells. Each of these components has to be connected to each other using flexible or stretchable conductive wiring. These devices are frequently created using ultra-fine layers of material that are evaporated or sprayed onto a bendable base. And this is able to produce thin, flexible layers of skin-like electronic circuits.
The efforts being made in the arena of e-skin have largely been driven by the desire to create more sophisticated robotics that are better able to sense and therefore respond to their environment. E-skin devices that are able to sense temperature, applied pressure and approaching objects have successfully been developed, which enable robots to operate in a safer and more human-like fashion – by being more aware of their environment and getting out of the way of danger/people.
The theory is: if this e-skin can be integrated with a wearable technology, it could do the very same thing for people. For example, it could help the wearer detect a harmful action or movement during sports. Essentially, we could be looking down the barrel of a merge between the human body and computer technology.
This technology has already guided us to the creation of the first bendable screens and batteries and there are more than mere whisperings amongst the tech community of companies turning the skin into an interactive touch screen using pico-projectors and sensors. The question is: will we, one day, be able to integrate this technology with our bodies and will it become as common as smartphones?
Will biocompatible organic electronics become the way of the future?
Challenges And Obstacles In The Path Of e-Skin
The answer is maybe! But at the moment, there are several challenges researchers and developers need to overcome. The first is that current organic electronics are simply unreliable and don’t perform nearly as well as their inorganic counterparts. The atoms that make up organic materials tend to be more chaotically organized than those in traditional electronics and this has a significant and measurable impact upon the movement of electronics within these materials. Namely, the electronics in organic materials move 1,000 times slower, so any device made from them will be much slower and far more vulnerable to the heat generated by the circuits.
Also, similar to biological skin, the models of e-skin that have been developed can actually become wrinkled after time and use and these wrinkles cause the composite layers to pull apart and the circuits to malfunction.
There is another significant obstacle in the path of e-skin integration with the human body and that’s biocompatibility. You can’t simply implant or place a material against the body without the possibility of a negative reaction, such as an allergy, irritation or full out infection. While organic, carbon-based materials are more likely to be accepted by our bodies, there’s the understandable anxiety that the introduced carbon particles could lead to inflammation and a subsequent immune response. This could theoretically (although its yet to be verified) cause tumours.
Having said this, the research continues to break new ground with scientists at Japan’s University of Osaka currently developing a brain implant made from a flexible matrix of organic thin-film transistors, which is designed to be activated by thought alone! The work is far from complete and they’re yet to test on human subjects, but at the very least the work behind integrating computer technology with the human body is underway and is enjoying certain measures of success.
The Near Future Of This Technology
There’s no saying where research and development will take us. Every theorised cyborg technology in every science fiction movie ever created could very well become a reality! In the near future, however, we’re looking at the gaining traction of prototype e-skin devices available as wearable (and possibly fashionable) bodily sensors. There’s also the very real possibility of harvesting energy from body movements, which could abolish the need to charge your portable electronic devices altogether.
The only question left to ask is this: would you be willing to have an electronic implant placed in your body? And are you ready to become a cyborg?