Implanted Bluetooth biochip gets under hacker's skin

A "DIY cyborg" has a surgically implanted chip that reads his body temperature and delivers the data to a mobile device. Warning: his subcutaneous sensor might make your own skin crawl.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
Just after his procedure, Tim Cannon described himself as exhausted and excited. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

If Tim Cannon wants to check his temperature, he doesn't need a thermometer. The biochip that's been surgically implanted in his arm does it for him, transmitting the data in real time, via Bluetooth, to an Android device.

The implant, about the size of a Bic lighter and dubbed the Circadia 1.0, lives between the skin and muscles of Cannon's left forearm in a sealed box, which also contains a battery that can be charged wirelessly. Built-in red LEDs act as status lights, and can be programmed to illuminate the tattoo of a DNA double helix that sits atop Cannon's bulging implant. He's thinking of programming the biosensor to text him if it think he's getting a fever.

While it might look like it, Tim Cannon did not have an iPhone implanted in his arm. (Click to enlarge.) Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

"I think that our environment should listen more accurately and more intuitively to what's happening in our body," Cannon, one of a growing number of so-called biohackers aiming to re-engineer a better human body, tells Motherboard.

"So if, for example, I've had a stressful day, the Circadia will communicate that to my house and will prepare a nice relaxing atmosphere for when I get home: dim the lights, let in a hot bath."

Cannon and cohorts built the implant at Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburgh collective of programmers, engineers, and biohacking enthusiasts "working towards a common goal -- augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open-source technology."

"Instead of taking snapshots of your health by visiting a doctor, you can aggregate weeks or months of medical data that you can store for your personal viewing," reads a description of Circadia on the Grindhouse site. The group builds DIY devices that aim to merge man and machine.

The Circadia, before it got implanted in Cannon's arm. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Looking at the above pictures, which appear to show an arm sporting a subcutaneous smartphone, it's not surprising that the DIY device has yet to receive FDA approval. Cannon had it implanted not by a doctor, but by well-known Gilbert, Ariz., body modification artist Steve Haworth, who placed the device under Cannon's skin without anesthesia as he's not a board-certified surgeon. (Haworth also surgically implanted headphones into the ears of Rich Lee, a would-be cyborg CNET wrote about earlier this year.)

Cannon knew the risks of the procedure -- the battery could have leaked, for example, releasing a fatal dose of alkaline solution into his bloodstream -- but made it through with only "a lot of pain, a lot of grunting," he said in this video interview shot by Motherboard at a recent international body mod conference in Essen, Germany. That's where Cannon had the operation performed. "It's closed, it's good, it's working," he said of his arm just following the procedure.

Also not on Cannon's worry list -- having his arm hacked. "I'm not really afraid of that," he said. "I'm a hacker...This is very fun and it's meant to capture people's imagination."

The Circadia is currently in its first iteration, but Cannon and crew hope to move the biosensor beyond just body temperature measurements to deliver other biometric data as well.

Grindhouse Wetware said it expects the first production run of Circadia chips to be ready in a few months for an estimated price of $500. They will mainly be distributed through the body modification community, and, it's safe to assume, will not be covered by HMOs.