THE CYBORGS ISSUE
The week of January 10, 2016
biohacktat

These high-tech tattoos may be the future of tracking technology

By AJ Dellinger

Like getting a tattoo, implanting actual machines into your body is a big commitment. Luckily, you can take both processes one step at a time thanks to a new temporary tattoo designed for the noncommittal biohacker.

Tech Tats, created by mobile development company Chaotic Moon, are either the gateway drug to embedded technology or a flashier alternative to tattoos, but either way they’re sure to get at least a few future teens in trouble with their parents.

The concept behind Tech Tats is to essentially take a wearable device like a Fitbit, strip out the sensors and processors that collect data, and paint the components onto your skin, like a henna tattoo. “The technology we use varies from a Atmel-based microcontroller to a BLE [Bluetooth low energy] integrated flexible MCUs [microcontrollers], as well as several tiny sensors and components more commonly used in surface mount devices,” Chaotic Moon CEO Ben Lamm explained to the Kernel.

The sensors set atop the skin record data and transmit it to a paired smartphone app via low-energy Bluetooth signals. It’s essentially the same process by which information is retrieved from a standard fitness tracker, except this one makes the wearer look like a cyborg from a dystopian sci-fi novel.

Tech Tats are a step away from being embedded in the body, a point that Lamm emphasized in discussing the product. “People tend to get creeped out by implantable devices. The whole idea was to get all the functionality of those devices, without the permanence,” he said.

Still, the possibility of moving the sensors just below those sacred, protective layers of epidermis are not far off. Tech Tats occupy the middle ground between the wrist-bound wearable that everyone has become so familiar with and the future of tracking technology, exemplified by recent scientific breakthroughs like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s swallowable sensor that tracks vital signs from inside the body.

The flashing lights and flashy designs of Tech Tats present plenty of possibilities for sensing all sorts of information about the wearer. “Our circuits do everything from temperature sensing, both atmospheric and body, as well as ambient light sensing to turn on and illuminate in a low light situation,” Lamm said.

Potential iterations for the technology range from medical uses like monitoring vital signs or identifying early symptoms of illness, to banking and security purposes like making purchases or entering account information. There’s even the potential for environmental uses like sensing air quality or reacting to nearby sound.

The idea of keeping any sort of data on your body might feel like you’re making it more vulnerable due to the fact that it’s literally exposed, but Lamm insists that there’s no additional risk.

“Data theft is less on the tattoo and more on the connected smart phone you are using. With the credit card and ID method, the data is only released via a one-to-one connection to an approved Bluetooth device; the hacker would then have to infiltrate that system,” he explained. “But as a precaution we are exploring interactions that allow users to create unique identifiers for releasing their important data like credit card or identification data.”

In fact, a case could be made that Tech Tats are a safer method of authorization for certain purposes; it’s a built-in biometric authorization system. “Because the system is on your body [and] not an accessory, it removes the need for pin-related secure authorization and the possibility of it being stolen.  This same system could be used in many other instances where human-to-human data transfer is needed, as well as both object-to-human and human-to-object data transfer,” Lamm explained.

While there’s no word on cost or retail availability of Tech Tats yet, Chaotic Moon seems intent on making the product as accessible as possible, both in price and in function. Once available, Tech Tats could make biohacking like beauty—only skin deep.

A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on Nov. 24, 2015.

Illustration by Max Fleishman