From the Jawbone Up to the Apple Watch, wrist-based designs have become the de facto form factor for wearable technology. But we’re already wrist-banded out. So what’s next?
We asked NewDealDesign, the design consultancy behind projects like the Fitbit line of activity trackers, and Google’s modular Project Ara smartphone, what things might look like when technology and fashion reach beyond the wrist. In response, they created Project Underskin. It’s a concept for a smart digital tattoo which would be implanted in your hand and interact with everything you touch. It can unlock your front door, trade data with a handshake, or even tell you if you have low blood sugar.
"When we started working on it, everyone was a little squeamish about implanting something. But there's a lot of cultural precinct," explains Jaeha Yoo, Director of Experience Design at NDD. "Obviously tattoos, piercings—people are implanting birth control. This stuff is going on now. It’s not a huge step forward to implant something like Underskin."
Running off of your body’s electro-chemical energy, Underskin would always be on, able to do basic things, such as sending out NFC signals to unlock your door when you touch the handle or ensuring your credit card only works when it's in your hand.
Furthermore, because Underskin would recognize both location and the movements within your body, it could not just track, but contextualize the gestures that you make. Underskin can see communicative nuance, distinguishing when you want to exchange contact information with a coworker through a handshake, or glowing intimately when you hold hands with a loved one.
"If you high five someone that’s very different than hand-holding, or a closed fist, or an open palm," explains Yoo. "The hand is where a lot of self expression happens."
Indeed, the hand is the fundamental biological tool with which we interact with the world around us. But it’s also a particularly intimate spot across cultures, NDD points out, as we see with henna and wedding bands. Those cultural ties are important in grounding the sci-fi to our lives, the firm says.
"I think, technology, when it’s super cutting edge, will always be better served if connected to a known culture already," explains NDD president Gadi Amit. "I think the sci-fi genre has tried to create things that are too cold, too mechanical, too scientific, and always failed to create a real true bond with culture. That’s the reason, for instance, we didn’t use the forehead or back of your head, because these are a bit too cyborgish."
The device would also monitor your vitality with precision. But for displaying this information, the system does two things to keep your information private. First, it encodes this data into a shape—a shape that could even be specific to you, like a thumbprint. Secondly, it would display this data on more private tattoo—one that lives inside your hand rather than on the outside. In other words, Underskin envisions a public image on your thumb’s knuckle, and another, slightly larger screen, that lives more discretely in your palm.
"I call it the introvert UI," explains Amit. "Using language that’s well understood by the user, what she wants it, how she wants it, but not necessarily proclaiming to the world she has a 101-degree fever."
NewDealDesign is confident that they could actually build Underskin within the next five years given the state of current electronics research. What would require the most work, they said, was actually the flexible display rather than the sensor, communication, implantation, or even the siphoning of your body’s energy. And in turn, Amit insists that we’ll see startups dedicated to such subcutaneous "wearables" soon.
"Seriously," Amit says, "I could tell you, in the last year, I’ve had discussion with entrepreneurs, probably three to four times, about physically invasive wearables . . . it’s a reflection on what design will be in a decade or so—not necessarily about the object—but about weaving together biology science, medicine, electronics, a lot of interaction, and cultural wisdom."