Engineers from Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed soft, stick-on health monitors that move and stretch with the skin, according to a university press release.
The wearable health monitor is wireless, sticks to the skin like a temporary tattoo and uses inexpensive off-the-shelf chip-based electronics. According to the press release, the wires in the device are folded like origami so the patch can “bend and flex without being constrained by the rigid electronics components.”
The patch is a thin fluid-filled elastic envelope that contains the chip components. Tiny raised support points suspend the components, so they are attached to the underlying patch without constraining the patch’s flexibility.
Northwestern Professor Yonggang Huang and Illinois Professor John A. Rogers led the development of the monitor, which can be used for everyday health tracking. It could also change clinical monitoring like EKG and EEG testing, since the inconspicuous stick-on patches can replace the traditional monitoring methods involving wires, pads and tape. The researchers found the traditional and the stick-on monitors performed equally well when tested.
“We designed this device to monitor human health 24/7, but without interfering with a person’s daily activity,” Huang said. "It is as soft as human skin and can move with your body, but at the same time it has many different monitoring functions. What is very important about this device is it is wirelessly powered and can send high-quality data about the human body to a computer, in real time.”
Comfort is important for long-term monitoring, situations that rely on natural movement and behavior (including stress tests or sleep studies) and for patients with fragile skin (for example, premature newborns).
The researchers hope this development could help catch health problems earlier. For example, Rogers said data analysis could detect the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
“The application of stretchable electronics to medicine has a lot of potential,” Huang said. “If we can continuously monitor our health with a comfortable, small device that attaches to our skin, it could be possible to catch health conditions before experiencing pain, discomfort and illness.”
The wearable monitors could also serve as more accurate fitness trackers, the researchers said.
“When you measure motion on a wristwatch type device, your body is not very accurately or reliably coupled to the device,” said Rogers. “Relative motion causes a lot of background noise. If you have these skin-mounted devices and an ability to locate them on multiple parts of the body, you can get a much deeper and richer set of information than would be possible with devices that are not well coupled with the skin.”