Things We Could Do with Electronic Skin

A breakthrough from some Stanford scientists unlock sci-fi fantasies

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Somewhere in between "cool invention" and "creepy thing that should go back to the Philip K. Dick novel it came from" are nanowire electronics. Nanowires are sort of like flexible, transparent microchips that scientists say change technology pretty radically. Based on the latest development in nanowire electronics, we believe them.

A team of Stanford researchers have created a new type of nanowire electronics that will stick to anything. Coating the nanowire with an ultra-thin polymer, the electronics work a little bit like a temporary tattoo that can be attached to a surface and removed multiple times. It looks a little bit like a skin graft when wet. Since the nanowires themselves are incredibly tiny and thin, scientists can build complex circuitry that's nearly invisible, completely flexible and biologically friendly. "The possibilities are really unlimited," says lead researcher Xiaolin Zheng. Let's make a list.

  • Heart monitors - Zheng suggested that the nanowire electronics could be attached to hearts, measure the electric signals produce, and monitor conditions like arrhythmia.
  • Brain implants - Also a suggestion from Zheng, the nanowire electronics could be able to help victims of brain traumas and measure brain activity.
  • Wearable Batteries - Scientists at Rice University have figured out a way to build batteries inside of nanowires. You could do all kinds of things with this, like never have to worry about charging your phone.
  • Animated Tattoos - We're guessing that you can make nanowires light up, in which case you could create some sweet tattoo designs. According to the internet, somebody sort of already figured this one out, though.
  • In-skin Computers - The science fiction blog Technovelgy calls this "readout skin" and quote a John Varley book for an illustration. "I snapped the fingers of my left hand… Three rows of four colored dots appeared on the heel of my left hand. By pressing the dots in different combinations with my fingertips I was able to write the story in shorthand, and watch the loops and lines scrawl themselves on a strip of readout skin on my wrist…"

We could keep going, but it's probably more fun to see the nanowire electronic skin in action.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.