Posted By: IceMyst
Technology reveals its softer side - 03/09/05 05:08 AM
LONDON, England (CNN) -- A new generation of "soft" electrical devices has been made possible by a fabric with built-in touch sensor technology.
The innovative material, known as ElekTex, could be used to incorporate phones or music players into clothes, remote controls into sofas, or light switches into walls or carpets.
"We're only just touching the surface of this sort of thing," said Miles Jordan, design manager at British technology firm Eleksen, which developed the fabric.
"The era of the smart home is upon us and we need a new form of smart technology to help us control it in a novel way."
ElekTex works in the same way as a touchscreen. By measuring changes in the voltage across the layers of conductive material from which each panel is constructed it is possible to work out where, and how hard, it is being pressed.
But ElekTex's advantage lies in its flexibility and durability. It can be folded, crumpled, washed, ironed and even punctured without suffering any subsequent loss in performance.
Early products that have utilized ElekTex include fabric keyboards for use with PDAs and mobile phones, a music player case with a built-in volume control, and a jacket with an integrated mp3 player and Bluetooth unit.
And following interest in ElekTex at the CES Conference in Las Vegas earlier this year, Jordan said Eleksen was gearing up for "massive productionization."
While techno-skeptics may question whether the world really needs "smart textiles," Jordan insists Eleksen is committed to humanizing and simplifying technology.
"From a design point of view there is a lot of scope for saying that what is simpler is usually better. You don't want to make things more complicated, you want to make them less so," he said.
"Undoing three bolts and a couple of handles to unlock a window is clunky, but walking into a room and having a sensor say your body temp is 34.6 degrees Celsius and automatically opening a window is definitely technology for technology's sake.
"The area in the middle is probably going into a room and saying, 'Let's open a window,' and just going over to a touch panel that makes it easier to access that experience."
He also accepts that ElekTex's ultimate fate will be more determined by its users' needs than by the expectations of its inventors.
"These technologies tend to find their own level. I love the idea that e-mail was a by-product of the World Wide Web. And now the whole world runs on e-mail. If that hadn't been seen as a useful way of communicating it would have been dropped like a hot potato. People find a way of tapping into the benefits of new technology."
For now, however, there are limitations to just how soft technology can become.
Eleksen have created a "fabric interface," but it still has to be connected to something that can interpret that input, as well as a power source.
"The interesting thing is we find we're still hidebound by a lot of technologies that aren't as soft as ours," said Jordan.
"If you wanted to make a soft laptop, we can do the keyboard but no one has done a soft screen yet and battery technology, although it's come a long way with mobile phones, is still a hard block that you've got to put somewhere."
However, ElekTex has already captured the imagination of designers. At this month's Surface Design Show in London, architect Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West said the fabric was an example of technology "becoming more sensual."
"Before you were limited to rectilinear forms. Now you can tailor the environment to how people move and how they act," said Egret.
"It's an organic approach to using space. It's about dancing with technology. It's about the environment responding to your movement rather than you responding to your environment."
Jordan says he hopes ElekTex could one day become "as omnipresent as Velcro."
"I always liked the quote from Akio Morita from Sony who said of the Walkman that what they were about was giving people what they didn't realize they wanted.
"There is an element of that with this as well. What our technology enables you to do is all sort of things in a soft environment that you couldn't do before."