In a world first, a socially-distanced tattoo artist in London has used 5G technology and a custom-made robotic arm to ink the arm of a woman over 300 miles away in the Netherlands.
The incredible technological stunt was backed by T-Mobile Netherlands, who hoped to demonstrate the power of 5G.
London-based tattoo artist Wes Thomas worked with technologist Noel Drew to build the one-of-a-kind tattooing rig using 3D printers.
Drew tested the equipment on the skins of butternut squashes hundreds of times before he decided it was ready to inscribe one of Wes’s abstract designs onto the arm of Dutch soap star and TV personality Stijn Fransen.
“Working with Wes was fascinating and terrifying at the same time,” Drew told PC Mag, explaining that rather than create an extra action to dip the needle in fresh ink before every new stroke, he and his team re-invented the tattoo machine with its own integral ink supply.
He added that another aspect of the tattooist’s craft is to hold the subject’s skin at just the right tension to leave a clean design.
“The tattoo artist has a deep understanding of human skin, which changes hugely depending on the location on the body and also from person to person,” he explained.
In the end, the team decided to hold the skin on the inside of Stijn’s forearm taut using plasters, and then strap her arm down to make sure she didn’t wriggle during the procedure. Although, he adds, she was “unbelievably calm” during the cutting-edge procedure.
Wes and Drew used 3D scanning to create a digital map of Stijn’s arm, which was updated in real time using the speed of 5G to give the tattooist virtually instantaneous feedback about where the needle was relative to the actress’s skin at every moment.
Drew also used a highly accurate industrial linear potentiometer to track the exact distance that the needle was pushing into Stijn’s skin at every moment – “This served as a failsafe in the event the needle tried to go too deep; just one of many safety features built into the system,” Drew said.
He stresses that he never intended to replace a human tattooist's unique combination of art and craftsmanship: “I’ve been careful not to be seen as trivialising the art form especially after getting such an understanding of it.”
In fact, Drew was so impressed with Wes’s work, he left with a tattoo of his own as a souvenir of a unique collaboration between the ancient tradition of tattooing, and the cutting-edge combination of robotics, 3D printing, and advanced telecommunications.
“It’s the symbol for an incandescent light bulb,” he said, “an appropriate crossover between technology and creativity".
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