New technology provides interface between humans, computers

Imagine having the ability to control a prosthetic limb with neurological signals, or to play a video game without a controller or motion censor but with just your brain waves. What used to be science fiction is now much closer to reality with skin-mounted electronics, a new technology created by University engineers.

A team of more than 20, led by John A. Rogers, professor of material science and engineering at the University, has developed an electronic device that can conform to the surface of the skin and simultaneously pick up physiological signals, providing an interface between humans and computers.

The device is like a computer chip, but instead of being rigid and planar, the physical properties are similar to those of skin, Rogers said. The thin, flexible circuit, almost unnoticeable to the wearer, is mounted directly to the skin just like a temporary tattoo and can read physiological signals including heart rate, muscle contraction and brain waves.

“In light of what we’ve accomplished … (the) possibility is up to your imagination,” said Todd P. Coleman, co-leader of the team and former assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and neuroscience at the University.

Coleman, who is now an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California in San Diego, said he was inspired by a talk that Rogers gave about flexible electronics and became curious about the medical capabilities. After more than two years of exploratory meetings and research, with a large team effort, skin-mounted electronics emerged, Coleman said.

From physical rehabilitation to neuroscience to clinical uses, the potential medical applications of the device are endless, Rogers said. The most immediate medical uses will be clinical, he added.

Existing technology with similar purpose doesn’t allow for things to be measured in a real-world type setting, Rogers said. With bulky wires, adhesive tapes, and few contact points, studies and tests are very limited.

“(Skin-mounted electronics) can replace those existing clunky devices … you can have thousands of contacts and measure in a huge number of locations,” Rogers said.

Sleep study subjects, for example, would be able to sleep as they normally do, without the bulky wires and sensors that might prevent them from doing so, he said.

The device might also be used for neonatal care, as the current sensors used to monitor premature infants are large and difficult to work with.

Beyond clinical uses, physical rehabilitation practices might also be improved. The device is capable of not only monitoring muscle contractions, but also stimulating them, Rogers said. The technology would also potentially open doors for neurosurgeons, allowing them to transduce brain signals, Coleman said.

“Doing both at once, you can do some pretty incredible things,” Rogers said.

Aside from the multiple potential medical applications, the device might also be used for energy harvesting or security, said Yonggang Huang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University who worked on the device design and mechanics.

While skin-mounted electronics have many potential uses, they are not yet fully realized, Coleman said. Engineers are still working toward a completely functional and fully integrated design by making the device autonomously powered and capable of both transmitting and acquiring wireless signals.

“We have all the building blocks,” Rogers said.