- xkcd: 933: Tattoo
The idea of a functional tattoo is not new. In a sense, tattoos have always been functional, just that the functions have tended to focus more on social bonding, status, communication, and beauty, rather than as specific tools or technologies. That vision of a ‘functional’ tattoo solely social in purpose is changing.
Curious about how tattoos are turning functional? This ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime, and touches on several points in between. You can find a house “tattooed” to meet building codes (yes, that’s by a different Andrew Maynard); tattoos with medical instructions; temp tattoos to help find lost kids or kids with special needs or allergies;and tattooed tools such as a ruler or a to-do list (also available as a temporary tattoo).
Increasing in popularity are cosmetic tattoos, usually to give a woman permanent makeup (but makeup tattoos are also available as temp tats). Tattoos can also serve to reconstruct normal appearance for some medical conditions or following accidents or injuries. Then there are legitimate medical tattoos done by doctors instead of tattoo artists, such as those used to position targets for radiation therapy to treat cancer (as in the comic at the head of this post).
The next level would include scientists and researchers who have chosen tattoos of their research area’s core equations (“tools of the trade”) or similar concepts. Many of these have been immortalized in Carl Zimmer’s book Science Ink.
Those are all ideas that could have been done with tattoos at any time in humanity’s history. I’m not stopping with the obvious or easy. Well, this next one sort of is easy, and sort of isn’t. At least it’s temporary? PaceTat is a temporary tattoo for runners showing their mileage and speed and other useful metrics runners sometimes wish for while in mid-marathon. Another potentially useful temporary tattoo for runners and campers (and Michiganders in summer) is the Bugga Bugga infused with vitamins and scents to keep bugs away (if the developer can work out the child safety issues)!
Less temporary, but equally techy (and probably more innovative and awesome), are the new breed of medical tattoos that track personal health data metrics with an eye toward early intervention when problems crop up. Tattoos to improve health is a brainchild of Heather Clark. Her team developed nanosensor tattoos that are embedded in the skin and fluoresce when scanned with an iPhone. They started with sensors that monitor blood glucose levels, allowing patients with diabetes to avoid those daily needle pricks. The idea is very extensible and could include other kinds of sensors, so they continue to expand the offerings, with the next one in development tracking sodium levels.
One of the more innovative and extraordinary examples of a functioning technological tattoo is an augmented reality chip tattooed onto someone’s arm so they can combine their real world with their tech world in, shall we say, novel ways. The concept of tattoos that interact with software or databases in unique ways could, however, be used in other ways, from security to wayfinding to identification, and many other uses I’m sure people will imagine.
What’s next? Ah, well, that’s why I wrote all this. This is the context, working up to the really exciting bits. I’ll continue with more emerging uses for tattoos, and some of the potential risks in part two.
ENDNOTES (Discovery information for links used above)
Andrew Maynard Architects. Tattoo House. http://www.maynardarchitects.com/Site/houses/Pages/Tattoo_House.html
CBC News. Childhood scars spur tattoo artist to help others. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2012/05/08/tattoo-scar.html
Dawson, Buck. Functional Tattoos (November 2011). http://buckdawson.blogspot.com/2011/11/functional-tattoos.html
Eduardo Alessi. Tatoo Meter. http://www.eduardoalessi.com/6114/93422/contact-infoeduardoalessicom/tatoo-meter
Engadget. Fluorescent nanosensor tattoo monitors glucose under the iPhone’s glare (July 21, 2011). http://www.engadget.com/2011/07/21/fluorescent-nanosensor-tattoo-monitors-glucose-under-the-iphone/
FDA. Cosmetics Q&A: Tattoos & Permanent Makeup. http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/CosmeticsQA/ucm167262.htm
Flash Your Tattoo. Temp Tat for Runners – Functional Tattoos (July 17, 2009). http://flashyourtattoo.com/blog/tattoos-body-art/functional-temporary-tattoos-runners/
I Heart Chaos. Nintendo 3DS augmented reality tattoo is awesome, real. http://www.iheartchaos.com/post/5134010603/nintendo-3ds-augmented-reality-tattoo-is-awesome-real
Levy, Stephanie. My “To Do” List: Yay For Functional Tattoos! http://www.flickr.com/photos/robandstephanielevy/4616960925/
Mr Precious Kid: Temporary Tattoos. http://www.mypreciouskid.com/temporary-tattoos.html
National Cancer Institute. Radiation Therapy for Cancer. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Therapy/radiation
Northeastern University. News. Tattoos that improve health (November 2010). http://www.northeastern.edu/bouve/news/2010/11/tatoos%20that%20improve%20health.html
Quirky Ideations. Bugga Bugga temporary tattoos, by Brad Thorne. http://www.quirky.com/ideations/197107
Temporary Tattoos With A Purpose. http://www.tattooswithapurpose.com/
Useful Things. To-Do Temporary Tattoos. http://www.usefulthings.com/shop/office/to-do-tattoo.php
Violent Lips. http://www.violentlips.com/
Zimmer, Carl. Science Ink. http://carlzimmer.com/books/scienceink/index.html
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