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Your Body Could One Day Be a Computer Display

Forget screen time—a new technology is all about skin time

smithsonian.com

How much screen time do you log per week? One day, that number could rise dramatically because the screen could be your skin. As Edd Gent reports for LiveScience, scientists have created a new technology that lets a person’s skin act as an electronic display.

The research, published in the journal Science Advances, shows proof of concept of a wearable display that’s only three millionths of a meter thick. The electronic skin is laminated onto human skin, turning into a display complete with organic light-emitting diode (OLED) that give information about what’s going on in the wearer's body. Though the prototype focuses on sensing the oxygen concentration of the wearer’s blood, its inventors think the technology could one day be used to visualize other data on the body.

It’s not the first time that scientists have tried to figure out how to use organic electronics—tiny, carbon-based materials that can do things like conduct electricity—to display information about the body. But Gent writes that organic electronics are so delicate that they usually degrade in the air, which previously required much bulkier protective coatings that don’t flex and bend like real skin.

This new device is different: It uses super-thin layers of organic and inorganic polymers to create a kind of lamination that shields the electronics from air and water vapor and melds them to the skin. The material is flexible, efficient and super-thin. You can see OLED displays through it complete with data about what’s happening inside the wearer’s body.

Though the research team envisions initially applying this tech to things like monitoring heart rate in athletes, they have much more ambitious plans. “What would the world be like if we had displays that could adhere to our bodies and even show our emotions or level of stress or unease?” asks Takao Someya, the paper’s author, in a release. In the future, says Someya, e-skin could negate the need to carry mobile devices and enhance the way humans communicate.

Though this idea may seem creepy to some, wearable technologies are the wave of the future. From “smart jeans” embedded with circuits to earbuds that add effects to everything you hear, some of the world’s most exciting tech is designed for you to wear. Some day, it seems, it will be hard to tell where technology ends and humans begin. And with the help of ultraflexible film that senses how you feel, you might be able to broadcast your reactions using nothing more than your skin.

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