When Tim Cook introduced the Apple Watch, many hoped it might do for wearable computers what the iPhone did for smartphones. And yet, great design aside — our ever expanding armoury of smart watches, smart rings, augmented eyewear, wireless earbuds, connected bracelets and fitness trackers — all seem to scream for a more elegant solution. We have hit Peak Tech, while somehow missing peak productivity along the way.
The true sign of technology’s success is when it disappears.
Compare a 1970s stereo with its array of switches and dials, compared to the bare minimalism of a Sonos speaker today. Or a TV/VCR remote from the 1990s, compared to an Apple TV controller.
Even the Internet has become streamlined. When I was growing up, getting online required arcane skills: hooking up an acoustic coupler to a noisy phone line, not to mention configuring COM ports, dial scripts and BBS login commands. For kids today, being online is as ubiquitous, and about as mysterious as electricity.
That’s why when you look forward 10 years, it’s unlikely that the iPhone 15 will be a phone at all. Screens can’t really get any bigger, and at a certain point, simply making something thinner starts to lose its appeal. The phone of the future is more likely to be a personal ecosystem of near invisible sensors that leverage the Cloud for heavy lifting, and the body itself as the interface.
Fortunately, integrating sensors into the body will not require radical surgery — but rather non-permanent smart tattoos.
Boston-based MC10, has been working on a range of ‘stretchable electronics’ that can be applied internally to human organs, or externally to human skin or clothing. Their Biostamp device is thinner than a band-aid, while its sensors can monitor your personal vitals including temperature, movement and heart rate. L’Oreal, working with MC10 and design firm PCH, recently released the My UV Patch, which attaches to the skin and measures UV exposure, alerting you via your phone when it’s time to reapply sunscreen.
The health monitoring capabilities of smart tattoos will make them essential for the management of conditions such as diabetes. Rather than the inconvenience of finger-prick blood glucose sampling, ultra thin sensors will read a patient’s blood markers on a continuous basis, sending signals so that the user knows when to administer insulin.
Aside from health, smart tattoos may also offer a discrete way to control our devices.
Motorola Mobility, originally owned by Google and now by Lenovo, has filed for a patent covering a tattoo that can intercept subtle voice commands, subvocal commands, and even subconscious thoughts. The device reads an auditory signal from the tattoo, placed over your vocal cords, and can use this to provide instructions to your other systems.
Similarly, MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research recently introduced a project known as DuoSkin that uses gold leaf tattoos that affix to your skin and provides an interface to control your devices, a thermochemistry display that can show your body temperature, or even allow you to store your personal identification, movie tickets or subway cards using a NFC tag.
One of the major challenges of smart tattoos is power. Adding an external battery is not practical for daily use. One approach that may be useful for sports applications was proposed by Joseph Wang, a researcher from the University of California, San Diego. His solution was to simply use sweat. Sweat secretes lactate acid and electrons. By embedding enzymes that process lactate acid to a tattoo, it may be possible to produce 70 microwatts of energy per square centimeter of skin.
So if watching teenagers endlessly staring and flicking at screens bothers you, be prepared for the near future when kids will be twitching, scratching and looking at things that only they can see, out of the corner of their vision.
Long before we attain the techno-nerd fantasy of uploading our consciousness into the Cloud — we may figure out how to do the exact opposite: embedding the digital world into our physical selves.