27 Jun U.K. firm develops smart fabrics
My travels in recent months have been a great opportunity to observe technology adoption across countries and cultures. Not surprisingly, mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous, even if their modes of use are not. Europeans are more likely to use their mobile with thumbs blazing, text messaging more than talking. Americans, on the other hand, are primarily talkers.
Yet mobile phones remain, for the most part, an accessory. They dangle from neck cords. Some sport cute bangles. Most are stuffed in a pocket or handbag, if not worn on the hip like a modern day six-shooter. Mobile phones are an essential tool, but they are, somehow, still separate from their users.
By contrast, consider the iPod, the little device that saved Apple Computer from its slippery slide. The iPod is intergral to its owner, worn more like a garment than like so much bling. I first noticed this difference in a Paris subway a couple of months ago. I began counting the passengers sporting the tell-tale white earbuds of the iPod headset when I noticed that a teenage rider wore his iPod headset under his t-shirt. He had donned his iPod before his clothing. Surely, this was an anomaly, I thought, until I saw the habit again and again.
Indeed, the iPod has become more a fabric of fashion than an accessory to it.
That’s a trend that U.K. component developer Eleksen Ltd. is counting on. Eleksen develops interactive textiles for consumer electronics. The unique conductive fabric knows where it is being touched and how hard it is being pressed and can translate those actions into instructions for electronic products. The company’s core product, ElekTex, is based on a patented conductive material that is a flexible, wearable, washable fabric. The fabric can be tailored to a variety of shapes and applications. The conductive properties of the fabric are software defined, so a single ElekTex fabric piece can be put to use in several ways.
Among the first applications of ElekTex was a rolled-up cloth keyboard for PDAs. The fabric is printed with an alphanumeric keyboard, but with another software interface, the same fabric can act as a digital drawing pad.
Eleksen offers some ElekTex products of its own, but primarily licenses ElekTex to consumer electronics and other manufacturers. The company recently did a deal with wetsuit and sports gear maker O’Neill, which plans to incorporate control pads for iPods and mobile phones into sportswear and backpacks.
The durable, versatile fabric has applications well beyond mobile consumer electronics. Auto manufacturers could incorporate ElekTex as soft controls into the steering column of automobiles. Virtual reality game developers could create clothing that is, in fact, an interface to a virtual world. Indeed, the versatility of ElekTex may be the biggest risk for the small U.K. company, which must focus on best first uses of the technology and partners capable of bringing innovative UI designs to market.
So far, the company is on the right track … and if the Paris subway is any indication, the market is ready for new wearable electronics.
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