An E-Tattoo on the Hand Is Worth Two on the Back

When interacting with another person, it’s perfectly natural to change the way you communicate with them based on their emotional state. You can change your tone of voice or decide that certain things should or shouldn’t be said as you consider their current mood. There are many clues, from facial expressions to abnormal behavior, that tell us how the other person is feeling. However, computers, which are an increasingly large part of our lives and with which we often communicate, do not understand these normal emotional stimuli. This is a factor that prevents many applications from reaching their full potential in areas such as virtual reality, mental health devices and even gaming.

Because the usual signals that humans interpret so easily are a challenge for computers to understand, proxy measurements are commonly used. In particular, electrodermal activity has been shown to be useful in measuring mental stress levels. However, collecting this data is not entirely simple. The palms are by far the best and most accurate place from which to collect this data, due to the high density of eccrine sweat glands that fill up under conditions of mental stress. Easy, right? No way! Solutions for capturing electrodermal palm activity are either large and cumbersome or small and fragile. The first group of devices disrupts normal daily activities and leads to social stigma, while the second group is unreliable outside of carefully controlled laboratory conditions.

Due to how intrusive the sensors on the palm are to the wearer’s normal activities, efforts have been made to capture signals from other parts of the body, such as the wrist, shoulders or back. Unfortunately, this turns out to be inaccurate—the signals are often contaminated by secretions from the apocrine sweat glands that regulate our body temperature. A better way forward appears to have just arrived, thanks to work by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. They developed a manufacturing process ultra-thin graphene e-tattoos which can be attached to the palm and are practically imperceptible. Thanks to their unique design, they are also strong enough to handle the frequent bending and twisting that comes with the terrain.

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The team had previously developed graphene e-tattoos, which are incredibly thin and very well suited to measuring electrical potential from the body, but were also too fragile to withstand the strain they would experience on the palm of their hand. The primary innovation in this current work was to remove the straight wires and instead build a serpentine ribbon consisting of two layers of graphene and gold overlapping each other. This arrangement offers a high degree of strain relief, allowing the conductive traces to withstand the harsh environment of the human palm.

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Using the scientists’ methods, e-tattoos can be formed into sensors and wires that transmit their signals to proximal hardware components for processing and analysis. In this case, an electronic palm tattoo was linked to a commercial smart watch worn on the wrist. From there, the smartwatch itself could run apps that use that data, or it could be wirelessly forwarded to a virtual reality headset, smartphone, or just about any other device that needs it. Given how stealthy, flexible, and durable these electronic tattoos are, it’s easy to imagine a future where this technology will be used in all kinds of wearable electronic devices.

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