Reports that mention Google's ATAP group typically list a few of the better-known and more colorful projects they're working on.
One of these is Project Ara, which is a modular phone concept that enables people to use 3D printers and other hacks to build just about any kind of phone they want. Google recently announced hardware-hacking conferences for the project that will begin in April. Some say the phone could go on sale as early as next year for as little as $50. Wow! Cool!
Another is a pill called a "vitamin authentication pill" that generates a password when swallowed. Uh, OK. That sounds, er, interesting.
The company is also working on electronic tattoos. Wait a minute -- electronic tattoos? That makes no sense. How can a tattoo be electronic?
Electronic tattoos sound ultra-futuristic -- something in the realm of transport beams, Martian terraforming and cheap iPhones.
Here's what everybody needs to know about electronic tattoos: They make perfect sense; they're inevitable; and they're going to be on the market very soon. In fact, it's almost certain that you'll at least try one within the next five years.
What is an electronic tattoo?
First, let me tell you what they're not: They're not tattoos. There's no ink, needles or piercing of the skin.
The reason they're called "tattoos" is that their application is similar to those in children's fake tattoos. It usually starts out on a sheet of plastic, is then applied to the skin and rubbed on from outside the plastic, then the plastic is peeled away, leaving only a very thin, rubber patch that has a layer of flexible silicon wires.
The concept behind electronic tattoos is simple. The idea is to create an electronic device, usually involving sensors, that is thinner than a sheet of paper and as flexible as a Band-Aid that can stick to the skin.
The secret sauce is flexible electronics. The core benefit is that they become part of the body in a non-invasive, painless and relatively inexpensive way.
In addition to sensors, the electronics package can contain wireless networking capability, so they can not only convey sensor data easily, but also be controlled from a remote computer or smartphone.
Why are electronic tattoos happening now?
Almost every big technology revolution is preceded by a materials revolution. For example, the computer revolution owes its trajectory to the development of semiconductor materials, including silicon, which replaced vacuum tubes and brought into existence Moore's Law, the law that states the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles roughly every two years.
The electronic tattoo revolution is coming about because of the development of miniature and flexible electronics. In fact, development of flexible electronics has been in the works for decades. Most consumer electronics, from phones to digital cameras, contain circuits that are flexible in order to bend circuit boards for the purpose of cramming everything into a tiny space. But in recent years, it's become increasingly possible to create flexible circuits that can roll, stretch and, most importantly, flex repeatedly without failing.
What are electronic tattoos for?
Researchers envision all kinds of medical applications for electronic tattoos. For example, extremely precise thermometers that can track tiny fluctuations in body temperature and set off alarms when the level goes above or below a set threshold. Because they're so thin and flexible, a thermometer patch could be worn for months.
In a few years, it's likely that a single, inexpensive rubber patch, attached to the chest of a patient or even a newborn baby will monitor a wide range of vital signs including heart rate, nutritional status, body temperature, hydration and breathing rate.
This is where most of us will encounter electronic tattoos. Slapping an electronic tattoo on patients to monitor vital signs will probably become widespread in healthcare.
But there are other applications for this idea beyond the doctor's office.
Google, for example, has specific patents for an electronic tattoo that functions as a lie detector. There's also a throat tattoo that conveys sounds from the throat to a smartphone or other connected device. The idea might be useful as a microphone for talking in a noisy environment.
A company called Electrozyme makes electronic tattoos that appear to target athletic performance. They can measure lactate levels, which show how much muscle fatigue is happening. The patch can detect pH values on the skin, which shows hydration levels, and other metrics of clear value to athletes. Imagine an entire pro football team wearing such patches and the medical staff monitoring their vitals and making recommendations to the coach to prevent burnout and injury.
Electronic tattoos are the ultimate wearable computer. There's no telling what a patch of electronics stuck to your body somewhere and connected wirelessly to a smartphone can do once app developers get involved.
It will start out with primarily medical uses, then evolve into a cyborg-like capability of melding human flesh with electronic sensors and communication.
The real revolution is flexible electronics
The astonishing fact about electronic tattoos is that they're only one byproduct of the flexible electronics revolution.
It will enable other good things. One will be smart clothing. Electronics built into pants, shoes, shirts and jackets will bring wearable computing into our clothing. Google's Android chief, Sundar Pichai, recently used the example of a "smart jacket" when talking about the possibilities of the wearables software development kit he was announcing.
Flexible electronics will enable flexible devices -- the first major example of which is the LG Flex, a curved smartphone. But we can look forward to clamshell devices that, when opened out flat, form a continuous screen across both halves.
There will be other uses for flexible electronics, but one of the biggest will be electronic tattoos. It's an idea that's coming soon. Once it arrives, it's really going to stick.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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This story, "Ready for your electronic tattoo?" was originally published by Computerworld.