A Glimpse of the Future: Tattoos & Technology

Sunday, July 27, 2014

by Paddy Vipond

technology tattoo

Photo by: tiziana monaci

In the May edition of Skin Deep, issue number 236, there was included an article entitled The Social Network. It looked at how technology, in particular social media, was influencing and affecting the culture of tattoos these days. I would like to explore the topic of tattoos and technology further, but approach it from a slightly different angle.

It is clear that technology is coming to play a greater role in our lives as time progresses. Long gone are the days of having to stay up to record something on a VHS, there is no more map buying and route planning before a journey, and school homework is being completed in record time thanks to broadband and websites such as Wikipedia. Technology is all around us, it is shaping and changing every aspect of our lives, and gradually creeping into areas where we never thought it would be necessary. Brushing our own teeth for example, used to be a fairly mundane task but now electric toothbrushes do the jobs for us, clothing has the ability to include LED displays, and there are now pens that allow the user to listen to the radio as they are writing. (My great-uncle has recently bought one of these, despite the fact he is basically deaf).

A Forbes article I recently read used the term the “uncontrollable evolution of emerging tech”, and that is the perfect description of what is happening. Technology is progressing, and, whether we like it or not, it will continue to grow and play an ever-larger role in our lives. If technology can, for want of a better word, “invade” the everyday activity of brushing ones teeth, then it will most certainly “invade” the business, and culture, of tattooing.

Where is it likely to go? What innovations will occur that allow future generations to take tattoos to the next level? Are there businesses already looking to bring technology into this ancient art form?

The famous saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but this is precisely what some companies are doing in the modern age. If we take glasses as an example, they have been around for hundreds of years, designs have changed slightly, but the basic principles remained the same. From its original inception, up until now, the spectacle has changed very little. However, this is about to change as Google are set to unveil their product Google Glass. These are high-tech specs that are set to revolutionize the eyewear market.

Technological innovations can go even further still, blending the lines between a humans body and a product. Prosthetic limbs are the obvious example but there are also more unique, individual ways of merging the latest technology with a persons body. Jerry Jalava is a Finnish software developer who lost part of his finger in a motorcycle accident. He hit the British news in 2009 because he had a 2GB memory stick inserted into his new finger, allowing him to store and carry around data within his body, hidden inside the ring finger on his left hand.

Could Google’s desire to reinvent the wheel (spectacle) impact on other products we would normally be content with leaving as they are? Could the blending of human and technology “invade” the culture of tattoos? After all, if any area of life were to provide the perfect opportunity to place technology within people, it would surely be tattooing. What could this mean for the future of ink?

Companies are already in the process of researching and developing products for these areas. This hypothetical future that I hint at, may not be so far away. With the tremendous growth in numbers of tattooed individuals, and the seemingly endless rise in popularity, it would make sense for big business to get a piece of the action. They are looking to see how tattoos could be used to serve a purpose, rather than simply being a piece of art.

One of the most recent innovations has come in the form of new inks. Said to have become popular due to the rise of clubbing, UV tattoos use ink which is next-to-invisible in sunlight, but which glow brightly when under ultra-violet light. Technology Guide states that the popularity of UV tattoos has been increasing steadily, and this may be because of its appeal to those who both work hard and play hard. Though attitudes are improving, the works place and the office are still rather unwelcoming to those with visible tattoos, and so UV tattoos allow the wearer to hide in plain sight.
As the clubbing generation matured, a new generation of innovative and boundary pushing upstarts began to take their place. This new generation had grown up with the internet, they had almost always been the owner of a mobile phone, and dishwashers were a necessity in their house, rather than a luxury. Surrounded by technological innovation this new generation of tattooists and tattoo enthusiasts further incorporated technology into the process that they love. Rather than just using ink which is responsive to certain light, why not have a design which is able to interact with technology. Thus was born the QR code tattoo.

QR codes are the strange looking, black and white pixelated squares that you sometimes see on products. One of the uses of the code is that when it is scanned by a smartphone, the user is directed to a webpage, or an image, or a video online. This ability meant that as long as the tattooist was accurate enough, QR codes could be inked directly on to clients, and linked to any material the client wanted. Want a tattoo that when scanned shows your latest tweet? It is possible. Want a tattoo that when scanned plays your wedding video? It is possible. Want a tattoo that shows you the latest weather reports in your area? It is possible. In one of the most famous examples (4.7 million YouTube hits isn’t bad)  a tattooist named K.A.R.L. inked a QR code on to a man’s chest, which when scanned, revealed a video of a cartoon man in a top hat singing and dancing. The worlds first interactive tattoo had been born.

In November of 2013, the concept of technological tattoos went even further. Under Google’s ownership, Motorola filed a patent for “coupling an electronic skin tattoo to a mobile communication device”. It is believed that this “tattoo” would be on the throat or neck, and would allow a person to connect with a smartphone or gaming device. Incredible as it sounds this electronic throat tattoo would work in a similar way a bluetooth headset does, via a transceiver, the “tattoo” would directly capture sound from the persons throat and send it to their smartphone.

Though Motorola’s definition of “tattoo” is on the very fringes of what we currently think of when we say the word, technological innovations and advances are going to continue to push the boundaries. A hundred years from now who knows what may constitute a tattoo. Motorola, however, were not the first communications company to explore the avenue of tattoo usage. With a more familiar use of the term, Nokia patented a tattoo innovation of their own a year earlier in 2012.

In March of that year a patent was uncovered that showed Nokia had been researching the idea of magnetised tattoos that would vibrate when your phone received an incoming call or text. PC Mag stated that the tattoo would generate a “tingling feeling” in a users arm, and could be used for alarms, appointment reminders or to signal low phone battery. The patent read that special “ferromagnetic inks” would be used in the design of the tattoo, which, once healed, would be magnetised, after which the phone would be adapted to send a magnetic signal when certain functions occurred.
Whether or not Nokia and Motorola have decided to continue with this research is unknown. There are those, such as Tech Crunch, that believe these companies are “just cooking up concepts and patenting them to prevent any opportunistic outsiders from trying something similar”. But whether the companies are acting on them or not, the patents alone give an example of the train of thought developers have gone through. Tattoos are being clearly identified as a market ripe for technological investment and innovation.

I don’t suppose we will see  graphic, 3D images moving along peoples skin for quite some time, but it would be naive to think it will never occur. Tattoos are here to stay, and they are a multi-million pound industry, and when you have the three factors of popularity, longevity and profitability, it is never long until the products receive high-tech make overs. The possibilities for the future of tattoos and technology are seemingly endless. Anything that could be incorporated into ink, or placed under human skin, has the potential to revolutionise the industry.

Perhaps in the future tattoo designs will be able to change colour at the users preference, providing perfect camouflage during those heated paintballing outings. Perhaps a tattoo could be used to monitor key functions of a humans body, providing statistics on vital signs that could greatly reduce health problems. Or perhaps in the future, there will be chefs slaving away in the steamy kitchens of Swansea, who do not have to worry so much about burning their hands on the hot pans, because the heat resistant tattoos provide some protection for their skin.

As ever I do not have the answers. All I know is that change is inevitable, and even the ancient art of tattooing will not escape technologies relentless advances.

This was originally published in Skin Deep issue 238.

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