Augmented reality and the future of tattooing

Augmented reality and the future of tattooing

The future of tattooing has arrived and its name is augmented reality. Mexican born Olo Sabandijia has made history by creating the first augmented reality tattoo that enables him to play a virtual reality video game. Matt Haddon-Reichardt jumped on a plane to Mexico to see firsthand this high tech tattoo technology.

Augmented reality tattoo


“My actual contribution was just a little refinement, I've already seen some other AR tattoos but this is the first interactive one that I know of,” Olo humbly states. For someone who has pushed the boundaries of tattooing into uncharted territory Olo is very modest about his achievement.

“I love tattoos and I love video games; combining the two was my dream,” explains Olo as he shows me the NES controller inked on his arm that acts as the key to shifting reality.



“It was an April Fool’s joke I saw online that gave me the idea; that solidified the idea of what I wanted. I came up with a way of getting a tattoo that I can change if I ever get bored. It was a few years later that I began the process of how to link a tattoo to the digital world. My initial thought was to use a QR code tattoo to point to a folder on my website where I could change the image, photo, animation or something else. Then I discovered the augment platform.”

“It was an April Fool’s joke I saw online that gave me the idea; that solidified the idea of what I wanted."

Olo had found a solution but one stumbling block remained.

“I wouldn't want a tattoo that would stop working if the IT Company I worked with went out of business. Then I discovered Unity and Vuforia.”

Olo explains that Vuforia Engine is a software platform for creating Augmented Reality apps. Developers can easily add advanced computer vision functionality to any application, allowing it to recognize images and objects and interact with spaces in the real world. He felt it would give him the security that he needed to take the plunge and get tattooed.

As a tech ignorant writer who cherishes his 9 year old laptop, 10 year old SLR camera and record collection the science behind turning a tattoo into an augmented reality experience baffles me, but Olo explains that its actually pretty straight forward and not just reserved for the Neo’s and Trinity’s of this world.

"There are a lot of things that can go wrong such as people losing or gaining too much weight will deform the image."

“The principle is simple. You need an image that can be easy to find for the app, you import that image into the game development platform Unity as a marker and link your image’s 3D assets to that marker so it mimics its position. When the app is running it opens the camera and once it identifies the marker it matches the position of the virtual marker with the image of the real one it sees in the camera, and the stuff you linked to the marker in the app follows your real image on the screen.”

It doesn’t sound simple to me and Olo has had some stumbling blocks to overcome.

“Making it work with a tattoo was a headache. I put the project on hold for 2 years because it worked fine with printed paper markers but I couldn't make the app read anything on my arm. I experimented by transferring inkjet prints onto my skin by printing over a sheet with tape but it was hit and miss. A friend that I met on a Game Jam showed me his AR tattoo and gave me a tip; to use only straight lines, sharp angles and high contrast.”

That knowledge enabled Olo to not only create an augmented reality tattoo but one that he could play like a conventional video game. The game he chose was the Sega classic Sonic the Hedgehog.

“Once I had a stable marker I sketched my scene of green hill and all the things I wanted in it; then I built it in blender.  Most of the textures I used were ripped from actual sprites of the game but for the Badniks I had to paint them but I picked the actual colours from the original sprite.”

“For now I'm just going to make another couple of tests with some close friends. Once I get it all figured out I'll do it but not a second before.”

Augmented reality tattoo

The big question is when can me and the rest of the tattoo loving video game playing world get our own playable tattoo.

“I'd have to make a database of really skilled tattoo artists and make people sign an agreement first since I can't guarantee 100% it will work smoothly. There are a lot of things that can go wrong such as people losing or gaining too much weight will deform the image. Tattoos fade if exposed constantly to sunlight and the app won't track any blurred image. I also haven't made any tests on dark skin; I don't think the app can handle low contrast and I want to make the tech available to everyone.”

So while popping down your high street for an augmented reality tattoo may be a few years away Olo is keen to develop his ideas further.

“For now I'm just going to make another couple of tests with some close friends. Once I get it all figured out I'll do it but not a second before.”

I ask what his next tattoo and game will be and he smiles.

“I have a couple of ideas but I'd rather keep them as a surprise.”

Back in Britain, jet lagged and cranky, I fired up my old laptop. Olo popped up on messenger with some disappointing news.

“I think I'll have to use a different tool if I want to sell AR for tattoos, Vuforia's license is absurdly expensive. I contacted them and they don't want to reach a reasonable compromise, but I'll let you know as soon as I have another solution.”

A few weeks passed before Olo emailed me with the sad that news his dream of augmented reality for the masses was on hold.

“By the way the bad news is that I've been trying different AR engines, but all of them have very expensive licenses, and so far only Vuforia is robust enough to read a tattoo, and its developer license has a limit of 1000 scans if I understood it right. I need to dig a little more to see if the license number is somehow linked to the unity install. If I’m going to make a business or of it I'm not entirely sure how legal it would be to have the customers sign up to get a developer's license and forward it to me but it's the only solution that comes to my mind.”

It’s a setback that in the short term will keep augmented reality tattoos for the few and not the many but with Olo’s skill, hard work and determination it can’t be long before we are living in a world bursting with high tech tattoos.


A final thought from the author: "If augmented reality is to become the future of tattooing then aftercare will be at the center of this digital revolution. As Olo states any changes to the structure of the tattoo could effect its ability to be scanned and act as a portal to the virtual world. To ensure the tattoo remains functional as a key to augmented reality, healing it effectively will be paramount. I can think of no better way of healing a tattoo than using Yayo aftercare products."


Yayo... its a family thing.


 Words by Matt Haddon-Reichardt.
Images by Matt Haddon-Reichardt and Olo Sabandija