DuoSkin: Temporary Tattoos For The Technological Age

When we think of the trailblazers of the fashion world, chances are, the names that come to mind are those of the famous fashion houses — designers with eponymous labels who challenge the status quo each season with wildly imaginative runway shows. When we think of fashion on the ‘cutting edge’, we most likely imagine designs being concocted in chic studios, surrounded by bolts of luxurious and exotic fabrics.

Chances are, when you think of fashion innovation, you don’t picture the laboratory of MIT. But with the development of DuoSkin, temporary tattoos that allow the skin to function as an interface, that’s about to change.

If it sounds like science fiction, you’re not alone in this reaction. “The very idea seemed steeped in a fantasy world,” writes Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, one of the researchers on the project. “But less than a year after we published our research and released our prototypes, our on-skin interface technology has been formally recognized as real.”

According to Kao, who is a regular reader of Vogue, the idea for DuoSkin was born while reading an article on metallic temporary tattoos. Kao took one look at the gold and silver tattoos on celebrities like Beyonce and, being a scientist, her brain jumped to a hypothesis: if these tattoos were made of metal, then perhaps they could be conductive as well as decorative.

With the help of fellow MIT Media Lab researchers Asta Roseway, Christian Holz, Paul Johns, Andres Calvo, and Chris Schmandt, and in collaboration with Microsoft Research, Kao began to develop DuoSkin. These temporary tattoos are made from gold metal leaf (a material that is both feasible and skin-friendly), and were developed with three types of on-skin interfaces: sensing touch input, displaying output, and wireless communication. A person can create customizable tattoos to remotely control mobile devices, display and store information, and, of course, exhibit one’s personal style.

And they’re cool. “DuoSkin aims to celebrate the personalization of individual style that is often missing in today’s wearable technologies,” says Kao. “We designed it as a body-crafting process with which anyone can design, make, and customize their own on-skin interface. We think it is important for a device so intimate to the wearer’s body to reflect the person’s sense of style, and not conform the wearer to a predefined function or form factor.”

This cutting-edge curiosity made waves when it debuted not at a science symposium, but at New York Fashion Week last year. Christopher Evans of the fashion line DYNE had been experimenting with NFC (Near Field Communication) in his athleisure lines, and when he learned about DuoSkin, he envisioned these innovative tattoos playing a prominent role in that season’s menswear runway show. It debuted to much interest and acclaim, and following this spotlight in the fashion world, DuoSkin went on to receive the “Sci-Fi No Longer” award at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Innovation Awards, further establishing its bright future.

So ­­ — what exactly will that future look like? Kao and her team were strategic in the creation of DuoSkin, envisioning its mass appeal as technology shifts away from interfaces. “We purposefully made the process inexpensive, user-friendly, and temporary so it is more playful, and more inviting for people to try it out,” she writes. “Above all, we wanted to make these seemingly cyborg technologies less scary for the general public.”

We can’t wait until these are widely available so that we show them off as our sexy, shiny, practical new accessories.

Images via MIT.