Stretchable Electronics Have Their Coming Out Party At CES

Photo: MC10 Inc.

About a year ago, on a frigid January day, I visited a research group at the University of Illinois. Led by University of Illinois professor John Rogers, the researchers were developing electronics that stretched, bent, and had most of the general characteristics of skin. As a result, once you attached them to your skin, you couldn’t really feel them sitting there. I saw skin-wearables that communicated, measured vitals such as temperature and heart rate, as well as muscle activity, chemicals in sweat, and more. The idea was that eventually, they could be made cheaply enough to be a mass-market product—in some cases, cheaply enough to be disposable. I wrote about the technology under development last June, and since then, have been waiting for it to start migrating into products.

At CES 2016, held last week in Las Vegas, that wait ended. Two companies—MC10, a Boston-based company founded in 2008 to commercialize the flexible circuitry and sensors created by Roberts and his team, and L’Oréal, the French skin care and cosmetics behemoth—launched the first commercial products based on the technology developed by Rogers’ team.

L’Oréal, licensing the stretchable electronics technology from MC10, has teamed up with product engineering and manufacturing firm PCH International to produce low-cost, disposable sun sensors that communicate with smart phones. They can track current and historical sun exposure over as many as five days. The My UV Patch has 16 squares, each printed with a UV sensitive dye; dyes of different sensitivity record sun exposure over minutes, hours, and days; two of the dye spots show ongoing sun exposure and revert to their original state when the wearer gets out of the sun. NFC circuitry in the patch communicates with Android phones, automatically calling up an app that analyzes the color changes and converts them into understandable information about sun exposure. iPhone users currently have to bring up the app themselves and manually align the phone’s camera with the patch to get a reading.

L’Oréal plans to release the My UV Patch under the La Roche-Posay brand. Developing the manufacturing process was challenging, PCH founder and CEO Liam Casey told me, because of the many layers in the 50-micrometer-thick package. These include the stretchable adhesive backing that attaches to the skin, the electronic circuitry, the sheet with precisely printed sensitive dyes, and a final cover that protects the dyes until exposed by the wearer. However, Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, says PCH managed to drive the manufacturing cost down low enough that they will be giving the sensors away later this year as part of a “Love Your Skin” marketing campaign.

Balooch says L’Oréal plans to release as many as several million of the sensors this year. The company is continuing to research other uses of the stretchable temporary tattoo technology, like measuring skin hydration and elasticity.

Meanwhile, MC10 launched the BioStamp Research Connect (RC), a reusable version of the stretchable electronics technology that’s about the size of a Band-Aid. The gadget includes four electrodes to pick up cardiac activity, muscle activity, and galvanic skin response. Its other components include: a rechargeable battery; a gyroscope and accelerometer for sensing motion; a Bluetooth radio; and memory. At this point, MC10 is aiming the product not at consumers, but at the very large community of researchers running trials on pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and sleep, as well as designers testing sports and fitness gear and researchers training regimens. Fuchs said researchers have also begun looking into the possibility of using Biostamps to provide objective measures of depression and the effectiveness of medication to treat it.

Besides its wearability, the key to the BioStamp’s usefulness will be its ability to coordinate with multiple brethren simultaneously worn on different positions on the body, suggested Roozbeh Ghaffari, MC10 co-founder and vice president of technology, who was speaking on a CES panel. “BioStamps will give us new streams of data from multiple body locations synchronized in a way that lets us see correlations that we couldn’t see before,” Ghaffari said.

“We anticipate sales in the hundreds of thousands of units per year,” Don Fuchs, MC10’s vice president of marketing, told me. “This isn’t a large market, but it is an influential market.”

Initially, evaluation kits that include software and a handful of patches will be sold for $1500, Fuchs said, but the company expects to offer a range of packages. BioStampRC kits are already out to beta testers, and the devices will start shipping to commercial purchasers at the end of February.

MC10 also unveiled a prototype of what Ghaffari said is likely to be the company’s next product, the Wearable Interactive Stamp (WiSP). The WiSP contains two conductive pads, a battery, memory, and an NFC radio. Users would wear the device for a preset period of time—hours to days—to, say, monitor for cardiac arrhythmias, or track heart activity during a marathon.

It is smaller and thinner than the BioStamp; at about 300 microns thick, it is somewhere between the BioStampRC and the My UV Patch in appearance. The WiSP is intended to monitor cardiac activity with, Fuchs said, a signal quality equal to what is called a single-lead ECG monitor, the most simple form of ECG monitor used for basic heart monitoring and checking for arrhythmias. The goal, Fuchs said, was to create the thinnest possible ECG sensor.

The WiSP will be entering clinical trials soon, and could enter the market as early as the middle of this year as a sports wearable—though getting FDA approval as a medical device will likely take until the end of the year, Fuchs said.  He believes the WISP could be priced below $20.

“WiSP,” said Ghaffari, “will get into the consumer space before the BioStamp,” competing with current, less accurate heart monitors, like those that mount on a chest strap.  Meanwhile, says Ghaffari, the company expects the next tattoo-like patch to be a temperature sensor.

I’ll be looking for it at next year’s CES.

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