The concept of the “tattoo-like” skin patch to monitor vital signs got a lot of PR back in August, but after hearing MC10′s CEO David Icke last week I see a much larger picture for what he called seamless sensing.
MC10 is commercializing technology under research for government agencies into applications like healthcare and consumer electronics. Their premise is simple: take thin, conformally mounted chips into flexible new form factors. I think the phrase “form factor” is a bit misleading. Icke asked a great question during his presentation at the USC Body Computing Conference:
Why do electronics have to be rigid, brittle, planar, or boxy?
This speaks straight to the conventional definition of form factor developed over decades of practice. If you can eliminate the board, that eliminates the box, and now the issue becomes how to power and protect electronics which are conformally mounted on just about anything. MC10 isn’t talking about a simple “printed” device like an RFID tag, but a complete system-on-substrate with sensor, microcontroller, and wireless capability.
Icke showed a brain sensor device which can detect epileptic seisures. A conventional implant for monitoring epilepsy is inflexible and doesn’t make complete contact with the brain surface, especially as the patient moves and as the sensor gets larger. Using MC10′s conformal technology, a very flexible sensor can be designed which increases the surface contact with the brain, increases the density of the sensing, and reduces the external interconnects needed.
Or consider instrumenting a balloon catheter, creating an intelligent surface which can provide much more measurement and control capability. One other point Icke made is the conformal carrier – what we’d normally call a substrate but in this case is much more flexible, and much thinner yet more durable than today’s flexible circuit technology – could be biodegradable, opening an even wider range of health related applications for this.
While most companies are focused on the wireless portion of healthcare technology, Icke sees a more complete solution chain needed as the form factor becomes much less like today’s electronics. He said that when seamless sensing, wireless connectivity, and data analysis are added together, the results will be spectacular. MC10 seems to have a handle on placing the sensing, or a device like a tiny microcontroller with a radio, onto a conformal substrate.
The problems? There are two. The first Icke admits is actually slowing MC10 down technologically: today’s battery and energy harvesting tech haven’t caught up to the flexibility MC10 can create in circuits. While thin film batteries hold promise, they’re not small enough or flexible enough in many of these applications, and coin cells are just way too big. The second is the last part of the solution chain: data analysis just isn’t ready to gather and make sense of a lot of data coming in from much more sophisticated sensors. This is one of the big challenges for mHealth: how to connect patients with more sensors to healthcare providers with the right data at the right time.
But these changes are coming. Embedded designers have moved from discrete transistors to SSL to MCUs and FPGAs, and the leap to these new types of conformal packaging isn’t that far off.