AUSTIN (KXAN) — New technology from the University of Texas at Austin can help sense a person’s emotional stress with uses in both the real and virtual worlds.

The wearable tech, called an e-tattoo, collects data about a person’s emotions. It was created by a group from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

This type of e-tattoo is worn on the palm, which is full of sweat glands that fill up as a result of stress or another emotional response. UT professor and project leader Nanshu Lu said the palm has the highest density of the eccrine sweat gland. That makes it the best spot to measure electrodermal activity, or EDA.

Figure show design of palm e-tattoo. (Courtesy Nanshu Lu, University of Texas at Austin)

“When we are nervous, our palms are sweaty, right?” Lu said. “It’s essentially what we’re measuring.”

Those signals are measured with the e-tattoo and shared with a smartwatch. Lu said current smartwatches attach to a wrist, but a wrist has fewer EDA signals than the palm because it has less movement.

The group completed the e-tattoo’s hardware development portion of the project, Lu said. Next, the product can be used for different purposes, including in medical settings like with mental health professionals.

“The data is going through a professional algorithm that can detect the onset of those mental stresses in correlation with specific In life events,” Lu said. “Then, professional advice or prescriptions of medications can be made.”

Developers can also use the data in virtual reality or human-robot interactions.

“When we play games or when we interact with robots, sometimes we’ll also feel nervous or stressed out,” Lu said. “Those developers of the games or the robots would like to know human responses to different scenarios or events.”

How e-tattoos work

E-tattoos digitize the human body, Lu said. They work through semi-transparent temporary electronic devices that attach to a person’s skin like a temporary tattoo.

The technology looks at electrodermal activity, or EDA, and shares the data with a smartwatch.

People can wear e-tattoos for about 16 continuous hours now, Lu said. That’s enough time for the device to collect data while the subject is awake and exercising, for example, and also while they’re asleep to track sleep quality.

The device has been under development for about three years, Lu said, and they vary in applications from head to toe.

Future for e-tattoos

In the future, Lu hopes e-tattoos can connect with different technologies. For example, an e-tattoo on the forehead that measures brainwaves could potentially connect with a VR headset.

“The VR can do a lot of simulated environments and events that can evoke a lot of unconventional stress and emotional responses, like training of firefighters or aviators,” Lu said.

It could also help improve human-robot interaction, like when robots perform human jobs.

“We need to have human supervision in the background watching the robots through the robots’ eyes using a VR headset,” Lu said. “All those kinds of applications require human-aware operation of the game or robot.”

Opposite to how e-tattoos digitize human skin, Lu said electronic skin, or e-skin, gives human qualities to robots. This lets a robot mimic human functionality with skin sensitivity to touch and temperature.

This could help develop robots that help with first aid, nursing or babysitting, Lu said.

E-skins are under development and would need collaboration with data scientists and robotic researchers to bring the vision to reality, Lu added.