Creating Conductive Tattoos

Upper School art students design their own temporary tattoos that control iPhone cameras.

Last month, a group of Rugene Paulette’s Upper School art students gave themselves tattoos (don’t worry, they were only temporary!) that not only looked great, but were conductive as well.

In connection to Visiting Innovator Leah Buechley’s visit in April, Bryan Innovation Lab Lead Technologist Shane Diller was inspired by DuoSkin, a graduate student project conducted by MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Microsoft Research. DuoSkin is a fabrication process that, by using gold-leaf, enables the user to create skin-friendly accessories that double as functional devices. Because gold-leaf is conductive, the materials can control mobile devices, display information on a screen, and much more.

The devices use the same technology as iPhones for sensing touch, which is called capacitive touch sensing. These temporary tattoos fall into a fast growing class of technology, called wearables, that is worn on the body instead of being kept in the user’s pocket. Fitbit and Apple Watch are prime examples of popular products in this market, which is expected to grow by almost $20 billion by 2020, according to this Forbes article.

Mr. Diller decided to partner with Mrs. Paulette’s art students to create a Steward version of the project. The students designed their own tattoos—ranging from a shining sun to the Batman symbol—and plated them with gold-leaf, which they then carefully cut out with an X-Acto knife to place on their skin. Next, they used conductive metal lead wires to attach the tattoos to special Bluetooth remotes that can take photos from afar, similar to a selfie stick. The remotes had been hacked by Mr. Diller so that pressing a button would connect two internal leads/wires. The students then connected the remotes to their cell phones and took photos by simply touching their tattoos.

Not only did the project involve art and innovation, the students also discussed the ethical questions raised by the existence of this type of technology.

“Technology has quickly moved past the laws that are currently in place to regulate it, and a lot of colleges and universities are trying to tackle this topic due to the ethics concerns it raises,” Mr. Diller said. “So I talked with the students about government ethics and privacy on top of electricity, design, and art. It just shows that a lot of interests and subjects actually overlap and complement one another.”

Mr. Diller has reached out to the creator of DuoSkin, Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, to share the students’ work and help improve her original prototype. To learn more, feel free to reach out to Mr. Diller at for full how-to instructions. Click here to learn more about DuoSkin.


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