programmable-tattoosYou know how we change our appearance by designing and tattooing colourful images on our skin? Wouldn’t it be cool if these tattoos were still permanent, in that we didn’t have to keep redoing or reapplying them, but the images themselves were variable? What about if these were not only transient but could also be animated? What a way to express ourselves that would be!
Chameleons kind of do this to blend into their surroundings. Squid and octopi do it too. They have these special skin cells, chromatophores, which change colour, reflection or even refraction. This also allows them to attract mates or scare off competitors and predators. Imagine how freaked out the workplace bully would be!

Well, this is not quite as farfetched an idea as you may think. There’s a very clever man called Robert A. Freitas, Jr., a researcher at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in California. This guy came up with the idea that you could implant a display just under the skin so the light was visible through it on your hand or arm, for example. This display, which was reported in Cryonics magazine, would have a couple of billion or more light-emitting nanorobots that would move around to spell out words or make other images in the display and all you have to do to control it is tap yourself…

Freitas actually wrote a series of books describing his very complex idea. The purpose for this invention was basically self-diagnosis or health management. Just imagine the uses for a diabetic, for instance.

As you could imagine, anything under the skin is better the thinner and more flexible it is. Just such a “nano-skin” polymer film was recently shown by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This very thin and very flexible polymer infused with billions of carbon nanotubes could make incredibly thin and flexible displays.
Modifying subcutaneous tattoos using special inks has also been patented. This relies on a kind of ‘digital ink’ tattooed into the skin. A set of drive electrodes manually applied to the skin manipulates the tattoo image electrically.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have programmable tattoos that were both continuously dynamic and tied into digital data displays. Just imagine: no more needles.

Actually, to avoid having the display implanted under the skin, wouldn’t it be really great to have a digital tattoo that you could apply ‘on’ your skin? Well, ask and you shall receive, my friends. In a speculative design that first appeared in Popular Science, tattoos are applied to the skin like Liquid Bandage. Well, ok, it is a bit more complex than that. First a matrix with conductive microrods is applied. Then a powered pad that aligns the microrods with an electromagnetic field is placed over the skin for a minute until the matrix is dry. This is followed by a layer of digital ink matrix then another layer of conductive microrod matrix aligned at right angles to the first.
Programmable digital tattoos would be the display component of a low-power Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN). The WPAN’s pocket-sized server would be capable of synchronizing with a Wi-Fi enabled PDA and allow for uploading of new calendar data, display drivers and display imagery icons.

Imagine if you had Asperger’s or were just very bad at reading your wife’s mood. Get her to display a smiley face depicting her mood and you are out of trouble.