Digital Tattoo: Designing interface for controlling smart ink in programmable tattoo

Can active particles be used to create interactive tattoos? This research project seeks to explore the mechanisms needed in order to make functional tattoos for a variety of applications.

What did the project involve? 

The concept of digital tattoos has existed for a long time but only with this project, which aimed to use a digital ink made of programmable particles that can change their colour, has there been an attempt to make the concept a reality. The research team explored the feasibility of embedding the ink in flexible materials that mimic human skin.

While tattoos generally have a cosmetic or aesthetic function, this research wants to explore how digital tattoos can be used for functional augmentation:

  • Tattoos can represent belonging or identity within a community but can also be a barrier from certain vocations. An on/off feature that can render the tattoo invisible may allow the wearer to integrate into other communities on demand.
  • Digital tattoos can also be used within healthcare, or to display biological data, for example to monitor and indicate blood sugar level to someone with diabetes, thus enabling them to react rapidly when needed.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Anne Roudaut (Computer Science and Bristol Interaction Group) works with shape-changing interfaces. These are technologies that are malleable and reconfigure into diverse shapes unleashing interactive potential for users.
  • Andrew Conn (Mechanical Engineering and Bristol Robotics Laboratory) develops biologically inspired and integrated robotic systems that exploit the principles of embodied intelligence and inherent compliance.
  • Richard Trask (Aerospace Engineering and Bristol Composites Institute) works in the development of biologically inspired composite materials and structures, at the interface of engineering, chemistry and biological sciences.
  • Ollie Hanton (Computer Science) is a PhD student working on fabrication methods for displays using ink and paint. Ollie has experience in manipulating ink and will help create the prototype.
  • Olivier Roudaut (Independent Tattoo Artist) will explore potential applications and produce the portfolio of example applications for digital tattoos.

What were the results?

Together the team sought to build a prototype digital tattoo drawn onto a previously developed artificial skin.

They used this to understand the parameters and requirements of successful embedding of active particles into skin and develop prototypes of the tools needed to create these tattoos.

The research produced a visual portfolio of tattoos exploring the variety of applications afforded by this technology.

Read Digital Tattoo’s blog post to find out how they adapted their research during the Covid- 19 outbreak.