Electronic skin will turn your entire body into a digital display
With the rise of DIY-cyborgs and biohackers implanting LED lights under their skin, it’s safe to say our future will be, well, flashy. But despite the obvious interest in the fusion of flesh and circuitry for everything from biomedical applications to the enhancement of Grinders’ personal styles, there’s still a long way to go before we see its widespread use to enhance or restore the body’s functions.
The primary impediment to our cyborg future is developing the materials that can both adapt to the body’s unique environmental conditions without doing further bodily harm or sacrificing an immense amount of efficiency in the materials used. Yet in recent months scientists have made a lot of headway in this direction thanks to breakthroughs like super-stretchy circuitry and, most recently, an electronic skin that can turn your palm into an LED display.
As detailed in Science Advances, a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo have developed an ultra-thin and ultra-flexible film which they put to use as an LED display, effectively creating an electronic skin. Such a device will allow for e-skin displays of biomedical data such as blood oxygen level or for heart rates, which could prove to be a major boon for medical patients, athletes, and others.
Prior to the Tokyo team’s breakthrough, most comparable devices were made of plastic or glass substrates on a millimeter-scale thickness. But for ultimate comfort and ease of use, researchers wanted devices operating on a micrometer-scale thickness—the only problem was devices that were continually proving to be too unstable to survive in air.
This is partly what makes the Tokyo team’s development such a big deal. The film is only two micrometers thick, made by alternating layers of organic and inorganic materials (Parylene and Silicon Oxynitrite, respectively). Not only did this alteration of materials allow the team to attach transparent electrodes to the film to make the LED display possible, but it also prevented the passage of water vapor and oxygen through the material, enabling the researchers to extend the device’s lifetime from a few hours to a few days.
Even after the Tokyo team created and attached polymer LED’s to the film and electrodes, the resulting e-skin display was only three micrometers thick and was still flexible enough to crumple and bend in response to body movement. Moreover, the team reported a six-fold improvement in efficiency over other comparable, ultra-thin LEDs, thereby reducing heat generation and power consumption.
Yet for Takao Someya, a professor of organic electronics at the University of Tokyo and the lead researcher on the project, the biomedical applications of this e-skin is just the beginning. He sees its potential being expanded to a number of other fields as well, such as communications.
“The advent of mobile phones has changed the way we communicate,” said Someya. “While these communication tools are getting smaller and smaller, they are still discrete devices that we have to carry with us. What would the world be like if we had displays that could adhere to our bodies and even show our emotions or level of stress or unease? In addition to not having to carry a device with us at all times, they might enhance the way we interact with those around us or add a whole new dimension to how we communicate."