What is e-skin?
e-skin technology is the culmination of over a decade of research and development. And it’s about to transform the medical device market. Many also suggest that, if that all-important price point can be met, it looks set to transform the consumer wearable market too.
e-skin is essentially a printed circuit board with sensors on a substrate that is thin, flexible, breathable and very comfortable to wear.
What challenges must e-skin overcome?
e-skin needs to be more than thin, flexible and comfortable, however. It must also be stretchable and contain self-healing electronics that can accurately mimic the functionalities of human skin, by responding to environmental factors like heat and pressure.
Many of the advances in e-skin development have come from designing materials for the substrate. Yet, at the same time, they also rely on advances in flexible electronics and tactile sensing. e-skin must have the ability to re-establish sensing functions, such as tactile sensing or electrical conductivity. And the challenges facing e-skin centre on the fragility of sensors, the recovery time of sensors, repeatability, overcoming mechanical strain and achieving long-term stability.
The research and results of several innovative examples means that that the tipping point has now been reached. The combination of flexible and stretchable mechanical properties with sensors and electronics that can self-heal is set to lead to exciting new possibilities, whose applications include soft robotics, prosthetics, artificial intelligence and health monitoring.
Speaking at the publication of his research into how human sweat could be used as a power source for e-skin, Seokheun Choi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Binghamton University, said:
‘With the development of stretchable, biocompatible and self-healing electronic materials, significant research efforts are dedicated to the seamless and intimate integration of electronics with human skin, which will produce breakthroughs in human-machine interfaces, health monitoring, transdermal drug delivery and soft robotics.
As the emerging technologies of artificial intelligence and the internet of things are advancing at a rapid pace, e-skins will definitely be one of the ultimate forms of next-generation electronics.’
Changing healthcare and changing med-tech
It’s not just changes in tech that are driving the development of e-skin – there are considerable financial incentives too.
The latest market research suggests that the e-skin market will already be worth $464m in 2020. It is projected to grow 37.7% each year to reach $1,719m by 2025. The driving forces behind this growth are the wearable market, particularly for use in healthcare.
Healthcare needs such devices as it undergoes a number of changes itself. Affordable technology, wide-spread Wi-Fi, social media and a greater acceptance of sharing data are radically changing how healthcare providers engage with and monitor the wellbeing of patients.
Increasingly, patient care is primarily being administered in the home. Helping this trend is the increasing number of medical interactions being conducted online, enabled by devices that allow remote patient monitoring.
As a result, investment is moving from hospital devices and equipment and towards investment in innovative devices that can be used in the home for health monitoring.
And e-skin perfectly fits the bill.
Converging consumer and med-tech
Commentators have also noted that the historically distinct markets of regulated medical devices and consumer health wearables are starting to blend. Advances in one sector are being picked up on and developed by the other.
As a result, traditional consumer technology companies are moving deeper into the device space – and the latest upgrade to the Apple Watch, allowing for medical-grade quality monitoring available directly to consumers but also suitable for doctors to use in treatment and diagnosis, is just one case in point.
User-friendly and highly-accurate wearables
The beauty of e-skin is that it is incredibly user-friendly, indeed it is barely noticeable to those wearing it. Prior to e-skin technologies, medical wearables had hard, uncomfortable surfaces. To compensate for this, they were often loosely attached, thereby sacrificing data consistency and quality, or they were uncomfortable to wear, and unattractive to patients.
e-skin technology will improve the monitoring of health and vital signs such as heart rhythm, respiratory rates, heart rate variability, ECG, temperature and more. It conforms to the natural shape of the human body and can be snugly placed at the most ideal location on the body based on the type of data to be monitored, which ensures accuracy.
How does e-skin relate to other electronic advances transforming med-tech?
Two of the other biggest technology trends that look set to transform med-tech are Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).
These are already helping with training clinicians through simulation, as well as in educating patients and helping with treatment.
Cool! VR pain relief, for examples, uses a virtual world of landscapes and changing seasons to distract a patient from the experience of intense pain. AR is also being used to gain efficiencies, for instance by superimposing a patient’s records and vital signs in real time as doctors make assessments.
Just one way that e-skin technology may merge with VR or AR is suggested by a newly developed e-skin that allows the wearer to manipulate virtual objects without actually touching them — such as typing on a keyboard or adjusting a dimmer.
From a study published in the journal Science Advances, it is suggested that such devices could one day be used in medical devices like prosthetics or in soft robots.
The potential for innovative electronic medical devices keeps on opening out.
The market is certainly ready for them.
The tech is certainly there.
e-skin looks set to be the latest tech that disrupts the sector.
‘In the coming years we see wearable technologies growing more in the healthcare industry and revolutionizing the way doctors engage with their patients. We also see wearable technologies enhancing the way parents and caretakers assist their sick loved ones.’
Lucia Nguyen, VivaLnk