The Art of the Interactive Tattoo: Part 2 – Tekmology

•August 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The potential to make a tattoo interactive is pretty easy given the wide adoption of internet enabled, camera toting devices.  The only challenge is to ensure you can provide data through imagery and that a device can understand your visual language. That is where the bar code comes in.

Anyone who has ever set foot inside a store is well aware of the synonymous UPC code, that set of parallel black lines in a white box you find on anything with a price tag.  The thickness of each line and the distance between them adds up to communicates a simple code.  When a device reads that image, it picks out the code and interprets it.  A cash register for example can grab that code, check against a company database of prices, and use that to decide how much to charge for the item.  Taking it a step further, companies can then use that to track their stock of particular items to then gauge when more product needs to be ordered or when an abundance of product needs to be sold at a reduced price.  That’s incredibly valuable functionality from a postage stamp sized image and a network connection.

Of course, there is no real universal database assigning random IDs to random data.  The closest thing we have is the Internet, where an address or unique name can be pointed to data somewhere out in the ether.  Accessing any type of data from the Internet can be done easily with a URL, so that is exactly what needs to be embedded in a tattoo to make it interactive.  That leaves a big issue once we get data in to a tattoo; this data has to be static… that means unchanged… for life.  Thankfully the second important part of using a URL is that redirection is simple.  All that you need to do is use a service that you can trust in the very long-term future to provide you with redirection.  Redirectable URL, check, but how can we communicate that information that visually?

For starters, a one-dimensional UPC doesn’t really work given the size and complexity of the characters needed.  For a URL we need a new type of bar code that can handle more complex information, hopefully in a smaller size that is readable outside of a best case scenario.  That brings in the two-dimensional bar code.  There are dozens of standards for 2D bar codes, but they vary greatly in size, visual appeal, and consumer support.  To spare the boring details, here are the standards I felt were the most interesting for using in a tattoo (thanks Wikipedia for the examples):

Quick Response (QR): Probably the most recognized form of 2D bar code.  It has become very popular for promotional purposes and more often than not contains a URL.  It also has variable sizes and just about every bar code scanning application for phones supports this standard.  On the flip-side, it requires a large box at 3 of the corners to give dimensions and orientation, which gives the code a very distinctive look… not the best for smoothly embedding in a general design.  I also found that code often was quite complex, which means it either needs to be tattooed very large or impossibly well.

Micro QR: This is essentially a smaller version of the QR, holding much less information (but potentially enough characters) and using a simpler marker system for orientation and identification.  On paper this is an ideal format for a tattoo, designed to be small and simple, but I found that not a single application for any of the major mobile phone operating system support this standard yet.  Maybe this will be a good choice in the future, but today this does not make sense.

EzCode: The original tattoo that inspired this whole thing was done with an EzCode.  The EzCode has an incredibly simple design with large blocks and no overwhelming identifiers (though it does need a lot of whitespace).  That means it is a fantastic choice for a tattoo.  However, what turned me off was that EzCode is *not* an open standard, meaning that only a single company (Scanlife) can create or read it.  While Scanlife is arguably the best bar code reading application out and is on almost every platform, the fact that there is still no Windows Phone 7 support (as of today) and all codes are “hosted” by Scanlife’s services make this just too risky for me.

Data Matrix: Data matrix is actually not common for consumer use (a distant second to QR), but it is synonymous in commercial use.  Chances are you have a data matrix code within reach and didn’t even notice.  Data matrix can be generated in a wide range of sizes and shapes, provides a pretty standard “matrix of pixels” style look, and is identified by drawing a border around two adjacent edges and a dotted border on the other two.  It is also supported by the majority of bar code reading applications.

Conclusion: Data matrix codes are widely supported (and will continue to be), provide great flexibility, a 30% margin of error, and a clean visual style that can be fit in to other designs.

Now that the format is picked out, it’s time to tie everything together.  Because the data matrix can be a variable size, the URL should be as small as possible (less characters = less data = potentially less size/complexity to the visual design of the code).  Since it is not important that the URL is memorable (it will always be in a visual code anyway), any garbage characters that are small and valid will work.  To throw a wrench in, through some experimenting with various readers I found that every application has a different way of interpreting a URL.  I found some are finicky about not having “http://” at the beginning of a URL and some did not even like URLs that didn’t contain .com domains.  With that in mind, that safest route was to stick with a .com domain, have http:// in the front, and avoid any subdomains (ie no “www”).  Most short domains were snatch up many years ago, but hitting up eBay you will see that there are a ton of squatters selling 4 letter .com domains (or even shorter if you are willing to risk .net/.cc./.us) at a price just a touch above the standard domain registration rates.  I grabbed a domain and had it transferred to a GoDaddy account.  Since they allow unlimited redirects without the need for hosting, keeping the domain registered is your only worry.  Just set up your account to renew the domain for the maximum 10 years (with auto 10 year renewal) and you are ready to go.  Now by simply redirecting the domain, you can change the destination of a bar code on the fly.

Finally, I made a quick visit to to generate my data matrix code:

Before making this permanent, I threw the image in to a photo editing program and proceeded to experiment with distortion, contrast, and markings to see just what the code could handle.  After toying with extra blocks, some distorted blocks, and differing contrast (as pale as I am, my skin is not THAT white), I found that my phone could still pick up the code easily.  The only issue is that it quickly loses the ability to scan when the code as a whole is skewed or expanded inconsistently.  Being on skin, it’s very possible for that to happen (say when you twist your body or flex a muscle).  This is going to be one of the largest risks in tattooing the code, but thanks to the flexibility of skin you should still be able to find at least one body position that is optimal for scanning.

With the tech side of things out of the way, all that’s left is the design.  We’ll take a quick stab at that in part 3.


The Art of the Interactive Tattoo: Part 1 – What am I doing?

•August 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In an earlier post, I laid out the thought process that led me toward making an interactive tattoo (  Now lets talk about implementation.

There are dozens of ways to get data from a static image.  The most common example would be the UPC code, what is now seen as the generic bar code because it is found everywhere.  This is down as a one-dimensional code as the data is only derived by the thickness and distance between the vertical lines in the code.  The UPC style tattoo is actually somewhat popular, though rarely are they functional.  Even when they are functional, they might only hold some character data that will display when read by the proper device.

The two-dimensional bar code has also been in wide use for quite some time.  By allowing the code to embed its data both horizontally and vertically, it is possible to hold far more information in a potentially smaller space.  This idea birthed quite a few standards and were adopted commercially to assist with cataloging, tracking, and stocking on a wide scale.  Just look at any shipping label or product you have and you will find one of these codes somewhere.  It was only when cameras became common place on mobile phones that consumers started to adopt the technology as well.  Instead of typing in values or trading paper, a quick click of the camera and the right software would allow users to collect contact information or visit websites.  This is the functionality I want to take advantage of.

Back to the real world, there were a few concerns on the top of my mind when designing an interactive tattoo.  Being a permanent part of my body, I want my design to be interesting, functional, and have some form of longevity.  That led me to three criteria:

  1. Visual Design: There are a fair number of bar code style tattoos out there, but the idea I wanted to convey was not just “THIS IS A BARCODE.”  I wanted a design that would flow between the code and everything around it as well as possible.  Most people will see the tattoo without scanning it and if for some reason my experiment doesn’t work, I don’t want a design that I don’t enjoy on its own.  As much as I want to the interactivity to work, it’s important to remember that this is a tattoo first and a code second.
  2. Complexity: Tattoos are not an exact science.  Skin is finicky, ink spreads, and at best the work has to be traced by hand.  While a steady handed tattoo artist can do great things, they are still only human, so this should be as simple a design as possible.
  3. Future Proof: The term “future proof” is silly as everything has a life.  However, its important to keep the future of this tattoo in mind since it would be lame to have it be successful only to be meaningless in a year.  The code should fit an established and widely used standard and the navigation target should be as dynamic as possible to best live up to what the future brings.

With that in mind, it’s time to get started.  Part 2 will cover the tech side of things and will be up ASAP.

Taking the Plunge: Here Comes the Ink

•August 15, 2011 • 1 Comment

I am one of the many people that did not care for tattoos.  Growing up in the suburbs, exposed tattoos were not very common (even in California), and ones that were visible were often tattered from a lifetime of sun and had no meaning.  Even as I got older and started having friends getting ink, they would often return with cheap work (Taco Bell salaries don’t usually provide for top notch inking).  Being young spoiled kids, their designs also had no correlation with who they were and usually were around because they honestly thought it made them look tough.  There were flaming dice, devils, small pinup girls, and others that make up all the cliches of the rainbow.  Things peaked when I was in line at my local supermarket in college behind a woman with a gaudy, flowing script across the back of her neck that read “John’s Bitch”.  Classy.

It wasn’t until I spent time with people more associated with urban and artistic communities that I started to see what incredible work could be done and what fantastic and sincere stories could lie in the symbols they decided to permanently put on their body.  Eventually I figured that I was not against tattooing, but I could not think of anything valuable enough to me to make it permanent.  As time went on, I started getting less stuck up on the deep meaning behind everything and instead saw it as a form of expression and even as a way to connect with a specific style or artist you find dear.  I started paying closer attention to work around me and noticed just how common it was and how much I enjoyed it.  It wasn’t long before I started to crave getting a little bit of work done myself, so much so that I came up with a concept while in a very unusual frame of mind one afternoon and had it never leave my head for months.  Eventually I admitted to wanting to get this work done, but dragged my feet because I still couldn’t see myself making the lifelong commitment.  It was about that time when this video starting hitting the tech blogs:

It occured to me that maybe my tattoo did not have to be such a lifelong commitment.  Sure, the ink would be there, but what if I could make it dynamic?  The artist in the video managed to make a tattoo that linked to YouTube to give an extra twist to his design.  If you can link to YouTube, who says you can’t link to a permanent location and redirect to anything else?  Video, audio, social networks, documents, mobile applications… the list goes on.  I decided to give it a shot and take my simple design to a new level.  My interest in this approach inspired me to take my original idea and turn it in to something that really does mean a lot to me, then go all in and make it interactive.  As a result, I have a design I made pixel by pixel that is exactly what I wanted to see.  But just because it has been inked doesn’t mean the design is done, and I can keep it alive as long as I want.


•August 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Only 10 days until Twentyfive!  Ginny and I have put in a lot of time making this show happen and it looks like it will be a huge success.  The work that the artists have been submitting is simply stunning and you do not want to miss this one night show.

Across the River Arts in partnership with the Fremont Abbey Arts Center presents newworks by 25 emerging artists and performers.  This one night showcase features a wide variety of original works by innovative local artists ready to extend their reach.  Painters, sculptors, dance choreographers, poets, musicians, playwrights, and every style in between will make up this special show giving the community an opportunity to meet these talented individuals and experience their brand new creations.

Site design

•August 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

When I stepped away from the first site, my hosting expired and I lost a decent amount of custom code.  Thankfully I had the foresight to migrate everything over to… but unfortunately it appears I’m too cheap at the moment to pay $30/year to tweak the CSS.  Maybe some day…  So in the meantime, sorry if the sight is rough around the edges (maybe I’m just telling that to myself), but huge props to Bryan Veloso for his awesome Chaotic Soul theme.


•July 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A few years ago I kicked off this site as a place to track my personal projects as well as post personal research on alternative and new forms of interfacing.  The problem was that once I scrapped a pair of overly ambitious projects, the site was scrapped as well.  I decided to wipe to the slate the clean and start anew.  I’ll stick with some of the same ideas, but this time I’m backing off on biting off more than I can chew and sticking instead to what I enjoy.  More incoming!