What would your parents say if you came home with a big, beautiful tattoo on your face? That bad, huh? Okay, now what do you think they’d say if you’d had type 1 diabetes since you were 6 years old, they’d spent their whole lives worrying about your blood sugar levels, and that dragon on your face would change colors the instant you needed an insulin shot, before any symptoms could develop? We don’t know your parents, but we imagine they’d say, “That’s great, but why did you get a dragon on your face when, like, a discrete butterfly on your wrist would have worked just as well, healthwise?” The correct answer, of course, is “Because I’m baaaad.”
Point being: Health-sensing tattoos aren’t just a sci-fi trope.
They are going to happen. In a way, they’re happening right now, although we’re still in the early stages. And for the coolest new development in tattooing, we have to go to a place that, at first glance, seems a little nerdy: MIT Media Lab. For the past 40 years, students from every discipline have come together in the MIT Media Lab to think up strange new technologies. These are some of the nation’s best designers, engineers, nanotechnologists, and computer scientists. Not exactly “bad boy” material. Except that they are. These innovators are to technology what Sailor Jerry was to the art of tattooing. They’re pushing everything forward, and we just have to hold on for the ride. MIT researchers Katie Vega, Xin Liu, Viirj Kan, and Nick Barry got together with Harvard Medical School’s Ali Yetisen and Nan Jiang to create a project called DermalAbyss. The “dermal” is for skin and the “abyss” just sounds cool, but neither is as amazing as what the project is actually doing. They’re trying to create a tattoo ink that contains “biosensors whose colors change in response to variations in the interstitial fluid.” That is, tats that measure and reflect changes in pH, glucose, and sodium.
That’s a very big deal if you have diabetes.
“With DermalAbyss, we imagine the future where the painful procedure [of testing glucose levels with a needle] is replaced with a tattoo, of which the color from pink to purple [is] based on the glucose levels,” the researchers wrote on their MIT Media Lab site. “Thus, the user could monitor the color changes and the need of insulin.” But you don’t have to have diabetes to reap the rewards of a DermalAbyss tattoo. At least, we don’t think so. “It could be used for applications in continuous…monitoring such as medical diagnostics, quantified self, and data encoding in the body,” the site reads. Medical diagnostics: Check. As for “quantified self” and “data encoding in the body,” that sounds like some post-human, singularity-type stuff that always goes right over our heads. We’re more the stick-and-poke tattoo types, anyway. For now, DermalAbyss is just a “proof of concept.” They’ve tried it on pig skin, but that’s about it. We’ll have to wait for the next step, but in 10 years when folks are walking around with chameleon-like, color-changing tattoos, just remember: You heard it here first.