General

The next wearable technology might be ... your skin

Technology may be inconvenient. Our pockets burden giant smartphones that cannot be pulled out quickly if you run somewhere. Attempts to make our devices more accessible with the help of smart watches are hardly successful so far. But what if a part of your body became a computer, with a screen on your hand and maybe even a direct connection to your brain?

Artificial electronic skin (e-skin) oncecan translate this into reality. Scientists are developing flexible, bendable, and even stretchable electronic circuits that can be applied directly to the skin. And in addition to turning your skin into a touchscreen, this approach can be useful if a person has burns or has problems with the nervous system.

The simplest version of this technology is electronictattoo. In 2004, scientists from the United States and Japan introduced a pressure sensor circuit made of pre-stretched thin silicon strips that could be attached directly to the forearm. But inorganic materials like silicon are tough, and the skin is flexible and stretchable. Therefore, researchers are looking for electronic circuits that could be made from organic materials (usually special plastic or carbon forms like graphene that conduct electricity) as the basis for electronic skin.

A typical electronic skin consists of a matrixvarious electronic components - flexible transistors, organic light emitting diodes, sensors and organic photovoltaic (solar) cells - are interconnected using stretched or flexible conductive wires. These devices are made of very thin layers of material that are atomized or vaporized in a flexible manner, producing large (up to several tens of square centimeters) electronic circuits in a skin-like shape.

Much of the effort to create thistechnology in the last few years was born thanks to robotics and the desire to give machines tactile human qualities. We have devices based on electronic skin that sense objects approaching, can measure temperature and exert pressure. This helps robots be more aware of their surroundings (and people who might be in the way). If integrated into wearable technology, electronic skin can do the same for people, for example, by detecting harmful or unsafe movements during sports exercises.

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Similar technology has also led to flexible screens; at least one company hopes to turn the skin into a touchscreen using sensors and picoprojectors instead of a display.

But can we one day build this technologystraight into our bodies? Will it be common? The problem of organic electronics at the moment is that it is not very hopeful and does not demonstrate the highest performance. In the end, even wrinkles form on electronic skin. Layers break up and patterns break. In addition, atoms in organic materials are more randomly arranged than in inorganic ones. Because of this, the electrons in them move 1000 times slower, devices work slower and have problems with heat dissipation.

Biocompatibility

Another major issue is howintegrate electronic skin into the human body so as not to create associated medical problems and attach it to the nervous system. Organic materials are basically carbon (like our bodies), so in a sense they are biocompatible and not repelled by the body. But carbon particles pass well through the cells that make up our body, which means they can lead to inflammation, cause an immune response, and possibly even lead to the appearance of tumors.

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And yet scientists have achieved some success,trying to attach electronic devices to the nervous system. Scientists at Osaka University are developing brain implants from a flexible matrix of organic thin-film transistors that can only be activated by the power of thought. The difficulty is that an invasive approach can lead to problems, especially when we start testing the technology in humans.

In the coming years we will definitely see howprototypes of devices based on electronic skin are gaining momentum in the form of wearable body sensors and, possibly, in the form of devices for extracting energy from body movements. Much more time will be spent on the development of complex microchips like those that are present on our smartphones. And how many people will go for it? Are you ready to become a 99% cyborg?