Under Your Skin: The First Sub-Dermal Implants Get Tested

By Will Smith

A team of researchers has tested several user interface stalwarts--lights, buttons, speakers, and others--to determine what technology does and doesn't work when it's implanted under skin.

A few weeks ago, I was looking into body modification and implants, and was surprised that I couldn't find much published research about the topic. The only thing I found was a passing reference to a series of tests run by Autodesk Research from a report of a technology conference in Austin, Texas.

Since then, I've had a chance to read the full report and speak to Tovi Grossman, a User Interface Researcher in Toronto, and one of the primary researchers on the paper in question.

According to Grossman, the goal of their research was simple--to explore the feasibility of interacting with implanted devices. While millions of pacemakers have been implanted in people over the last few decades, there's no way to interact with those devices once the patient is stitched up. Doctors can't even check the battery level of a pacemaker without opening up a patient, much less change the battery or update the firmware.

Photo Credit: AutoDesk

Much of the Autodesk team's work took place on arms of cadavers. They tested a variety of devices equipped with buttons, touch sensors, LEDs, speakers, and vibrating motors both under the skin of the cadaver and on a tabletop, to determine how effective different types of inputs and outputs are when they're implanted under the skin. They also tested inductive charging through the skin and Bluetooth radio transmission through skin.

The surprising thing, at least to me, was that everything worked when implanted, even the capacitive touch sensors.

However, some of the inputs worked better than others--notably push buttons. On the output side, the vibration was much more useful than the other outputs. "The LED needed to be very bright to be able to see it, but the vibration signal worked very well. Other people can't see it or hear it, so it's a personal form of output."

The second phase of the study sent people out into Toronto for an hour to live life with an Arduino controller attached to their arms, hidden under a patch of synthetic silicone skin. The controller was programmed to behave like a game--when a light flashed, they had to press a button, when it vibrated, they pressed the touch sensor, etc. While the people who had the controllers attached to their arms got used to them after a while, no one they encountered while out stopped them, asked questions or engaged them.

What does the future hold for implanted consumer electronics? Says Grossman, "It's impossible to speculate. The most research that has to happen is in the medical domain." While the technology of medical implants is well developed and the engineering for this sort of device is theoretically feasible today, it's risky to implant foreign objects under someone's skin. Pacemakers are demonstrable lifesavers--without them, people with heart conditions are more likely to die, so implanting a chemical battery and associated electronics is worth the risk. Is it worth risking infection to implant a consumer electronics device? It will likely take years more research to figure out what can be done with implants, before we can determine whether they're worth the inherent risks.

What do you think?