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Video: Electronics that wrinkle and stretch like skin

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Scientists have created an electronics patch that works like a temporary tattoo. It could have multiple biomedical applications and enhance the functioning of people with muscular or neurological disorders.

Remember going to the doctor's and getting a colorful Band-Aid for your boo-boos?

Engineers have developed an adult, 21st-century version of that: a skin-like patch that holds all sorts of electronics and can even be mounted onto a temporary tattoo.

The patch, which bends, wrinkles and stretches like skin, can contain electronic components for sensing, communications and relaying information from the body to a machine.

The patch could have multiple biomedical applications, including holding EEG and EMG sensors to monitor nerve and muscle activity. Much more comfortable and less cumbersome than a traditional electrode, it obviates the need for conductive gel, tape, skin-penetrating pins or bulky wires. Researchers could use it to study brain function in a natural environment, rather than in a laboratory, which is the setting for a traditional EEG study. Such research would be especially beneficial for monitoring health and wellness throughout the day and night.

The researchers, led by John A. Rogers, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois, demonstrated the capability of this thin rubbery material by mounting sensors, LEDs, transistors, radio frequency capacitors, wireless antennas, conductive coils and solar cells on it.

In a press release, co-researcher Todd Coleman of the University of California at San Diego, said,

“We think this could be an important conceptual advance in wearable electronics, to achieve something that is almost unnoticeable to the wearer. The technology can connect you to the physical world and the cyberworld in a very natural way that feels very comfortable.”

The patch is first applied to a thin sheet of water-soluble plastic and then stuck onto the skin with water -- just the way a temporary tattoo would be. The electronic components can also be applied directly onto a temporary tattoo so the electronics cannot be seen.

Skin-mounted electronics could not only collect data on the wearer's health, it could enhance his or her functioning. The patch could help patients with muscular or neurological disorders, such as ALS, communicate with computers. The researchers have already demonstrated that, when placed on the throat, the sensors can distinguish muscle movement for simple speech. They have also used the electronic patches to manipulate a video game.

The circuit is made in the shape of tiny, squiggled wires called filamentary serpentine that allows them to be bent, twisted, scrunched and stretched while maintaining functionality.

In the press release, co-researcher Yonggang Huang said,

“The blurring of electronics and biology is really the key point here. All established forms of electronics are hard, rigid. Biology is soft, elastic. It’s two different worlds. This is a way to truly integrate them.”

The researchers are now working to integrate the various devices on the patch so that they work together as a system, rather as than individual devices, and to add wi-fi capability.

The team described the skin-mounted electronics patch in the Aug. 12 issue of the journal Science.

This video is a bit plodding, but it shows how the electronics can be applied with the use of a concealing temporary tattoo. (Click on photo, and the video will open in a new window.)

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure