Dilettante biohackers were thrilled about the “tech tattoos” unveiled last week by design firm Chaotic Moon Studios, which promise the data-collecting ability of a FitBit without the burden of wearing a conspicuous wristband. For people who already use smart devices to track their vital signs, the tats represent a (conceptual, not-for-sale) step toward to a future where the term “wearable tech” will be redundant. For everyone else, the tats are just another way to collect data we’ll never use.
That will change.
The proposed temporary tattoos are essentially a cluster of sensors that collect whatever information it can from the surface of the skin, packaged together in a circuitboard design reminiscent of what Matrix-age designers considered “futuristic.” Right now, given the state of wearable tech development, they’re pretty much limited to collecting the same kind of information as a JawBone or Apple Watch — data like heart rate, calorie burn, sleep patterns, and temperature. This is useful information, but it’s also already available to the sorts of people who want to make active decisions based on it.
But as the tattoos find more dynamic applications, they’ll also find a wider audience. Chaotic Moon’s explainer video suggests that giving physicians access to a constant stream of their patients’ biometric data could ultimately eliminate the need for annual checkups, making basic healthcare more efficient and less time-consuming. And once identification and data can be embedded in the circuitry, the tattoos could replace credit cards and IDs to make banking more secure, according to the designers.
The logic here is hard to argue with. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the designers are making a good argument, just that we don’t know what the hurdles to creating more useful skin-tech might be.
Biohackers have already figured out how to store basic identity information in their bodies by surgically implanting RFID chips, which can hold the kind of data needed to open car doors, unlock phones, and, if institutions like the TSA ever get on board, wave through security checks. Chaotic Moon doesn’t mention the chips but should probably consider them, considering they can be as small as rice grains and don’t need to be surgically implanted. Without RFID-level data collecting or storage functions, the tech tats are really no more useful than any smart device on the market. With the RFID chips, they’re offering different, non-interacting services.
Any wearable tech device is only as useful as the data it collects. As biometric sensors develop ways to gather and store more information and institutions like banks, schools, and airports figure out how to use that data, tech tattoos might eventually surpass their current status as mere novelties and actually become the unobtrusive, time-saving, identity-securing devices they’re meant to be. For now, however, they’re nothing but slimmed-down fitness trackers for people channeling their inner ‘90s cyborg.
But they don’t look too bad, which is promising.