Project Underskin is a concept project by NewDealDesign that envisions a more personal application of wearables – for example, exchanging information through digital tattoos. Project Underskin is a concept project by NewDealDesign that envisions a more personal application of wearables – for example, exchanging information through digital tattoos. Project Underskin is a concept project by NewDealDesign that envisions a more personal application of wearables – for example, exchanging information through digital tattoos. (Photo: NewDealDesign)

A smart tattoo implanted under your skin? Meet the next wave in wearables

A San Francisco design house says it'll happen in 5 years. Here's how.

They say consumer technology is a lot like surfing. You have to know the exact time to catch a wave, because before you know it, the next one is closing in.

The folks at NewDealDesign, a San Francisco-based design house that’s the creative brains behind the popular Fitbit fitness tracker, believe the next wave in wearable technology is not a smart watch, or a calorie counter, or a camera that looks like a small kaleidoscope. This time, they’re going beneath the surface.

As part of FastCompany’s Wearables Week, NewDealDesign unveiled its take on what wearable technology will look like in five years. They called their concept “Project Underskin.”

Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

"Underskin is a vision for what could be for wearables," NewDeal's CEO, Gadi Amit, told From the Grapevine. "Implanted or tattooed devices are happening – it's not a matter of if, but when – and with that, we wanted to create a more human look at what that near future looks like. Not dystopian, cold sci-fi, but ambient and personal."

Gadi Amit, founder and president of NewDealDesignGadi Amit founded NewDealDesign in 2000. He's been the designer of choice for companies such as Fitbit, Dell, Microsoft and Google. (Photo: NewDealDesign)

The backbone of Project Underskin is a sub-dermal tattoo that would be implanted into your hand and would interact with everything you touch. You'd be branded with the ability to unlock your door, track your health or exchange information with a handshake.

Before you start conjuring images of humans being herded like cattle to special high-tech tattoo parlors, consider the source.

Amit is a veritable superstar in the design world. Born in Israel, he graduated from the Bezalel School of Art and Design in Jerusalem. After a few years working for model makers and industrial design firms in his home country, he moved to Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. In 2000, he left his job at Frog Designs to start his own firm. He's won more than 70 awards, including Designer of the Year by Fast Company in 2010. In addition to the popular activity tracker Fitbit, his company's portfolio includes Google's Project Ara smartphone, the Better Place electric vehicle charging station, and the Whistle, a smart dog collar. Last year, he was selected by First Lady Michelle Obama, a big Fitbit fan, to receive the National Design Award, which honors excellence, innovation and lasting achievement in design.

When Amit makes forecasts about industry tends and timelines, people tend to take notice. So although it sounds far-fetched and, frankly, a little terrifying, Amit and his team can say with a great deal of confidence that the world is, indeed, ready to tattoo themselves with data. 

“We’re moving into a situation where these objects of electronics and digital thinking will become inherent to our existence," Amit said in an interview with CNet. "We already see that with the mobile phone. I think it’s the most personal object you have ... People immediately jump to the conclusion that we’ll be cyborgs. Actually, my goal in designing is that we won’t be cyborgs. We’ll actually become more human and more free from the technology."

Cyborg or not, Amit emphasized that Underskin is strictly in the concept stage right now. There are no prototypes, contracts or Kickstarter campaigns. This is simply a realistic vision for what NDD thinks the industry will look like in five years.

"Quite frankly, any new technology creates fear and uncertainty," Jaeha Yoo, NDD's director of experience design, told From the Grapevine. "For whatever reasons, new technology is often wrapped up in issues of freedom and individuality, but what we’re proposing is more about how we deploy technology for human ends rather than how technology can control human actions. We see Underskin as a facilitator. An ambient augment to your daily life. Interestingly, as we went deeper into the concept, the security concerns were actually alleviated by an idea like Underskin. This concept would return the site of identity to the body."

 illustration of the design behind Project UnderskinThis is an illustration of the design behind Project Underskin. The concept involves implanting digital tattoos under the skin. (Photo: NewDealDesign)

Yoo said Project Underskin was not meant to replace or counter the wearables movement, but rather bring new ideas to existing concepts.

"There will be a place for any number of different formats of devices, including Underskin, and they will all be connected and work together – we like to think of it as the Personal Area Network – with the phone as the hub," he said. "But each of these devices will have a purpose and a way to fit in."

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