August 26, 2019

Are we ready for more functional beauty?

Katia Vega // WTF BEAUTY

Katia Vega has an unusual specialty in her research. She adds technology to everyday beauty products to give people “superpowers.”

When she thinks What the Future, she’s wondering if we’re ready for all the cool stuff she’s working on. WTF: How would you describe what you do?

Katia Vega: I call it beauty technology. In my research I try to imagine different ways to use these techniques to modify your body, but instead of using traditional makeup or tattoos, I use technology to expand its functionality, so your body itself becomes a kind of interface.

WTF: You recently got a grant from Johnson & Johnson to continue work on one of your projects involving tattoos. How do you envision melding technology into body art like that?

Vega: That project is a collaboration between MIT Media Lab and Harvard Medical School. We replace traditional inks for tattooing with biosensors. These sensors work in a similar way to [test] strips for knowing different levels of glucose, cholesterol or if you’re pregnant. It’s an indicator, and [the sensors] change color depending on different levels in your body. We are exploring pH, sodium and glucose biosensors. Imagine, for example, that someone with a tattoo with these kinds of interactive tools [can see] that the color of glucose is changing and will know when it’s more useful for insulin.

WTF: Your other projects involve cosmetics or fingernail polish or hair extensions. What other beauty applications are you exploring adding technology to?

Vega: My mom had her lipstick, my grandmother had lipstick. It didn’t change very much over time. So I was thinking about how we embed technology in these products that we wear every day. They’re very close to your body because they’re on your skin. And then we will have an extra superpower from the technology. For example, with conductive makeup I created a chemical process for metalizing [false] eyelashes so they create a circuit in between your upper eyelids and lower eyelids. When you close your eyes or blink, we can sense that you’re blinking, and [the eyelashes can be programmed so that] a drone
will fly or lights will turn on or music will turn on.

WTF: I can imagine a lot of different applications for that…

Vega: We are working with someone who has disabilities. For him we’re using a kind of “second skin” material traditionally used in Hollywood for making a big nose or a scar or something like that, but we add sensors so he can turn on the TV or change the channels just by blinking because he cannot move his body.

WTF: You’ve worked with nail polish, too.

Vega: I developed nail polish with chips similar to the ones for paying the Metro [subway]. Imagine that you could have one nail for paying the Metro, another for opening the door of your office. We have all of these cards in our wallet. We could instead use chips built in the tips of your fingers to interact with different devices.

Katia Vega, assistant professor, department of design, University of California, Davis


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The more functional, the better for beauty tech

In recent years there have been significant advancements in the world of beauty and technology, such as bracelets that also track your heart rate, or lipsticks that change color based on your body's temperature or pH. How interested are you in the following products that also mix beauty and technology?

U.S. Canada

Tattoos with biosensors that change color depending on aspects of your real-time health such as blood sugar levels or pH levels 33% 41%

Nail polish with sensors that could be used to unlock a car or pay for items, similar to tapping your phone or credit card 22% 24%

Hair extensions that, when touched, trigger an action on your phone such as taking a picture or starting a recording. 17% 17%

(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between May 30 and 31, 2019 among 1,004 adults in the U.S. and between June 19 and 21, 2019 among 1,003 adults in Canada.)

WTF: How far away are we from seeing things like this on the market?

Vega: In Japan they are selling already some fingernails with chips and also some eyelashes with LEDs that are more for festivals or performances. In general, research of this kind will take time to develop and to go to market and capture [and develop] a different kind of audience. I started with these ideas in 2012. We’re now seeing some of these ideas are already in the markets. Most of the projects I don’t patent. I like the idea of making them available.

WTF: I assume there are implications for the user, too.

Vega: It’s a new learning experience for the user as it becomes closer to your body. There are ethical and technical considerations.

WTF: Fingernail polish chips can be removed on a whim. But with tattoos or embedded technologies, what happens when the device stops working?

Vega: Exactly. For example, if you have a tool that is telling you what your glucose level is, it kind of becomes public information. How do you hide that information and how do you reveal that information just when you want it? For me, these projects are about making people think about their body and its possibilities. I like the idea of enabling the possibilities for interacting with the skin and the body.

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, Assistant professor Department of Design, University of California, Davis

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