Edge of Innovation

Meet the technology that turns your skin into a data network


If the HP Sprout, Compute Stick and the Basis Peak represented today’s technology at the 2015 Intel Future Showcase, Human Body Communications is definitely one for the future.

Human Body Communications seems like the stuff of science fiction

The phrase describes a system that can transmit data across your skin, giving users the ability to share digital content by simply touching one device to copy that content and then tapping another device to paste it. It might sound incredible. The stuff of science fiction. But a group of Intel engineers have managed to make it work.

How? The prototype system at the Intel Future Showcase used two specially modified laptops fitted with copper touch sensors. By touching one with your finger tips, a small file (in testing, the Intel engineers have used emoticons) is converted into an electromagnetic signal. This signal is passed from the laptop and across the surface of the skin, where it can be stored in a non-powered wearable, such as a wristband or a ring.

Human Body Communications
Human Body Communications enables you to transfer a file (in this case a smiley emoticon) between two computers, simply by touching one and then touching the other.

The technology doesn’t use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. “You are not radiating through the air,” says Intel engineer Jerry Sydir, who led the project. “You are actually putting electrical signals over the surface of the body.”

To paste the file, the process is reversed. The stored data is pulled out of the wearable storage device, where it flows back across the skin and into a second laptop via a similar copper sensor.

During a 12-week programme, Sydir and radio frequencies engineer Anand Konanur worked with interns Patrick Buah Jr. and Arsen Zoksimovski to create the prototype Human Body Communications technology, which you can see working in the video below.

It’s obviously early days and file transfer is hardly a smooth process. But imagine how this could work in the future. You could share a photo with a friend by simply tapping one device to copy and then the other to paste it; transfer map coordinates to a GPS device; even store the ID of a document so that the moment you touch a printer it starts to print it.

The technology takes the idea of touch to a higher level

Human Body Communications doesn’t quite turn you into a human flash drive, or a living Dropbox folder. But it does point the way towards the Body Area Networks of the future, where data flows invisibly across us between different wearable gadgets and, when we need it do, out into other connected devices.

It’s another example of how the digital world and the physical world can work together to make it easier to share and manipulate data. Ultimately, if Intel’s engineers can boost the file sizes that the technology can handle and the idea becomes widely adopted, it could make tomorrow’s wearables a whole lot smarter. — Dean Evans (@evansdp).

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