Finally, Tattoos That Let You Control Objects with Your Mind

Science hasn't been easy on the paranormal, routinely deflating fantastic claims by hucksters purporting psychic abilities. So wouldn't it be ironic if scientists were on the verge of making paranormal-like abilities a reality?

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Coleman Lab / UCSD

Science hasn’t been easy on the paranormal, routinely deflating fantastic claims by hucksters purporting psychic abilities. So wouldn’t it be ironic if scientists were on the verge of making paranormal-like abilities a reality?

Imagine controlling an object with your mind. Or don’t, because you probably already have. I did when I was a (pretty little) kid. It never worked, of course, but boy did I stare daggers at several unsuspecting flower pots, pencils and sticks of chalk.

The trouble, of course, is that your brain works a whole lot better when it’s motivating things it’s actually wired to, say your eyeballs, tongue, fingers or toes. But aha, you’re saying, we have wireless technology in 2013. We live in the future! Can’t we just cut that cord, too?

We already have: If you want to get technical about it, when using a handheld remote control with old-school antennae to pilot a hobby-style airplane across a field, you don’t actually touch the radio-controlled plane; the brain-interface includes your hands and the control box. But that assumes you have hands to work with, and working a control box to drive a wireless drone around is hardly “telekinetic” — not half as cool-sounding as it might be if you could simply think that drone into action.

You’ve probably heard of brain implants acting as biomedical prostheses in what’s sometimes referred to as a “brain-computer interface,” allowing someone to manipulate neuroprosthetic arms and legs or simply nudge a mouse cursor using nothing but thought. We’re doing that stuff today. But you’re still talking about interfaces that usually involve invasive technology, often drilled into the skull and attached directly to the brain itself — Jean Grey, it’s not. What if you could reduce the interface to something that didn’t require brain surgery, something not only noninvasive, but roughly the size of a tiny, removable tattoo?

Call it “cerebral cord-cutting.” That’s essentially what Dr. Todd Coleman and fellow researchers at the University of California San Diego are up to, creating “electronic tattoos” capable of interfacing with your brain and wirelessly conveying your thoughts as commands to remote systems and devices. Using what he describes as an “ultrathin conformal” design, Coleman has been developing “foldable, stretchable electrode arrays” that can non-invasively pick up neural signals, EEG-style. Unlike a traditional EEG, which might involve a spaghetti-dinner’s worth of scalp-placed cabling and conductive gel, Coleman’s solution amounts to a tiny piece of pliable skin-like material less than the thickness of a human hair and houses “epidermal electronic” circuitry powered by solar cells or antennae, which also allow it to communicate wirelessly. That’s it up top, a stylin’ body mark that wouldn’t be out of place in a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel.

We first noticed Coleman’s work back in 2011, when it was angled more toward diagnostic medical research, the idea being that small, wearable, easily concealed sensors would make keeping tabs on someone’s biological data — say monitoring brain or heart activity — much easier. If you’ve ever worn a holter monitor, for instance, you know what a mess that can be, and while holter technology’s improved ergonomically over the years, imagine how much simpler it might be if you could just slap one of these tattoos on and have it wirelessly transmit information to something like a watch- or smartphone-based diagnostic app (which, in turn, would be capable of relaying that information back to someone else).

And that’s just the start. According to Txchnologist, Coleman and his team of researchers are actively working on creating electronic tattoos capable of manipulating external electronics like remote-control drones (so not really telekinesis, but as sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”).

It gets even wilder. Imagine placing one of these electronic tattoos near your throat, where it might pick up on subvocal muscle movements. When you think about speaking, forming words in your mind, muscles in your throat and tongue actually move in extremely subtle ways undetectable without sensors. Add one of Coleman’s sensor-laced tattoos and not only might you be able to convert those movements into speech, the tattoos could actually relay words to someone (or something) else wirelessly. If your friend across the room has a smartphone capable of receiving the data, plugged into a pair of earbuds, they could actually hear your speech-related thoughts — pseudo-telepathy!

“We’ve demonstrated our sensors can pick up the electrical signals of muscle movements in the throat so that people can communicate just with thought,” says Coleman, adding that the tattoos could also be used to improve speech recognition by giving apps like Siri a subvocal leg up.

Again, the notion of remotely conveying speech or controlling objects with the power of your mind alone isn’t new, it’s the idea of creating a noninvasive interface sophisticated enough to measure biological activity accurately without clumsy intermediary cables and gels that’s groundbreaking. Imagine what you might be able to do game-wise in tandem with something like Microsoft‘s Kinect, or Google’s Project Glass, for instance. As Sony EyeToy creator Richard Marks (not the pop singer) once told me, you can do all kinds of things with ergonomically unappealing technology today, but the real trick is designing something that people would actually wear. Tattoo-sized technology sounds like just the ticket.

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