Wearables, once the hot tech du jour, are now part of our toolkit to make normal life a little bit better. Track and tweak your sleep to wake up feeling fresher. Use a fitness tracker to lose your wobbly bits. Try an Apple Watch to help remember to get up and walk around.

But what if your wearable was not something you wore on your skin, but under it? Kathryn Lawrence looks into a world of skin-deep wearables where it's hard to tell which tech is real and which is a hoax...

“When you’re on the crowded dance floor with those red hot saxophones,
Tain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones”

Lee Morse, “Tain’t No Sin”

Most of us don’t think about “wearing” our skin, but our largest organ already does so much for us that we should consider it the original wearable technology (more OG than clothes!).

It heats and cools our bodies, protects all our innards, and houses a lot of our built-in sensors (aka the nervous system) that transmit information about our bodies and our environment. But it could do more.

Technological interventions like those covered in The Wild World of Human Augmentation have shown how much we can enhance our bodies by integrating them with technology.

"Project Underskin," via New Deal Design

Beautifully designed conceptual predictions like “Project Underskin” may show what skin-integrated technology might look like, but we want to explore tech that actually exists – and that’s harder to find than you would think, since there is so much vaporware in the wearable industry.

Hoaxes and Jokesters

There are a lot of too-cool-to-be-true products out there, and a lot of videos showing fake products with the help of computer-generated graphics. You have to know what to look for when watching these videos: too much contrast between the “screen” and the rest of the image, shrewd framing not fully showing the devices or only showing them from one angle, and other dead giveaways of bad video editing.

This video, for the Cicret Bracelet, went viral back in 2014:

Their website advertises it as “like a tablet… but on your skin” and the video features many images of people on the go using their forearms the same way we use the screen of a smartphone - browsing websites, playing mobile games, checking maps, and answering phone calls (when the phone is on the table literally less than two feet away…).

Using crowdfunding, Cicret raised over $500,000 to produce their product, but unfortunately what they are going to deliver couldn’t possibly live up to the promise of their campaign video. YouTuber <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbgvSi35n6o” target=”_blank”>Captain Disillusion has debunked many of the claims about the technology in the original video (such as their motion-sensing mechanism, or distortion from the display capabilities of a pico projector), and also pledged $250 of his own money to try to receive the Bracelet himself (which was projected to retail at $300).

After pushing their original “end of 2016” release date to mid-2017, the Cicret site has announced they are “ready to produce the Bracelet” and have “sourced all the components needed.” In their <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsMrsBMS-fc&” target=”_blank”>last working prototype video, posted five months ago as of this writing, they show a massive device compared to the original design and claim they are still “on track” to make it “much more smaller and design,” but popular opinion is that this product is never going to exist the way that they advertised it.

Even more well-designed, and courteously not trying to take anyone’s money, is <a href=”http://www.emergeinteractive.com/insights/detail/introducing-the-worlds-first-electronic-ink-tattoo?utm_source=YouTube&utm_medium=description%20link&utm_campaign=april1” target=”_blank”>“The World’s First E-Ink Tattoo” by Emergence Interactive. Announced on April 1, 2015, it claims to have e-ink technology (like in a Kindle) inserted under the skin, which is connected to a smartphone app that controls the display any image from the phone.

It’s a really good fake, and seems marketed towards people who are afraid of the permanence of tattooing, or want to see their Apple Watch displays projected on their arm.

The Real Deal

There are several products currently available that turn your skin into a wearable technology: but neither of them allow you to display information from your phone. The emerging skin-integrated technologies are more about using the skin as a sensor, sending data from gestures or from your biometric data.

DuoSkin via MIT Media Lab

DuoSkin was produced by a collaboration between scientists at MIT and Microsoft. Inspired by the popular metallic silver and gold temporary tattoos now commonly seen at music festivals, these temporary skin-safe applications of gold leaf actually work as functioning circuits.

The DuoSkin fabrication process allows anyone to make their own wearable circuits, if they can program them and get access to the necessary materials. First, you have to design the circuit and print it onto vinyl. Then apply gold leaf on top of the circuit apply it as you would any temporary tattoo before mounting the electronic components like tiny NFC chips with skin-friendly adhesives.

In their proofs of concept, they made DuoSkin interfaces that were able to control mobile devices, display and store information on the skin. The flexibility and DIY-ableness of DuoSkin was an intentional goal of the DuoSkin development team:

“We believe that in the future, on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified; instead, they will converge towards the user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations, forming a DuoSkin integrated to the extent that it has seemingly disappeared.”

The biometric sensors of Rotext look only slightly less flashy, but have just as many practical applications, among them VR and AR, remote controls, healthcare, fitness, and fashion. In a video posted in December of 2016 they show their electronic tattoo technology made of biometric sensors that are “as thin as hair, and light as a feather” being used in a multitude of ways:

The video is so advanced and shows so many diverse uses for the device that it’s hard to believe they have made a real product that is capable of all of these things, but they did show their technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show and say it will be available for approximately $300 in mid-2017.

In <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCT7sCMY9NE” target=”_blank”>a video from CES 2017, a woman being interviewed at their booth while wearing one of their adhesive arrays of sensors, explains that currently the skin interface can’t work on its own – you have to carry a small plastic box about the size and shape of a domino which houses Bluetooth and a rechargeable battery. It’s not clear whether the box has to touch the skin to get the data or whether it can communicate with the skin sensor from your pocket.

Skin Deep

We already don’t think twice about transdermal medical devices like pain relievers or nicotine patches, so it makes sense that stickable, peelable electronics could catch on, and the theories of how they actually work - and materials that these technologies could be made of - have already been proven.

Many of the skin-interface technologies currently in development actually come from making skin for robots, which has to be sensitive to all of the things human skin is, but also interface with a computer system to process that data.

The question isn’t when we will have this technology, but how we can improve it and make it easier to manufacture as well as more usable and ecologically friendly.

The leading lab for research in “e-skin” technologies is from the University of Tokyo, which released a paper in Frontline Technology about Imperceptible Electronic Skin to “describe recent progress, bottlenecks, and future applications for extra-light and flexible interfaces such as electronic skin.”

One of the recent challenges is making thin-film transistors (or TFTs) that can hold up to the same conditions as skin: flexibility, durability, and density are all problems.

“TFTs do not just allow the electronics to be flexible – they can also help E-Skin mimic the sensitivity of real human skin. There are more than 2 million pain receptors and 30,000 thermal receptors in a person’s entire skin, which is equivalent to the number of pixels found in a typical high-definition television. A major obstacle for E-Skin is figuring out how this many sensors can be integrated into electronic sheets. Two-million sensors cannot be directly wired up to the driver circuits that control them because this would require cramming 2-million contact pads onto a silicon chip. (Of course, it will not usually be necessary to create a piece of E-Skin this large.)”

While it may not be necessary to make human-sized e-skins, it’s very cool to imagine the uses for a full-body computer: VR-responsive controllers that slip on like Morphsuits, or interpretive dances created in collaboration with neural networks.

And the future holds even more intriguing possibilities. “Green” or biodegradable electronics are also currently in development. So, in the future, you could wear all the contents of your smartphone right on your arm, and shed your e-skin like a snake when it’s time for an upgrade. How about that for wearable?