Flexible working

Smart fabric producer Eleksen has moved from satirical puppetry to cutting-edge wearable computing in just eight years, and the man charged with extending its potential is Andrew Newman. Niall Firth reports.

There cannot be many UK technology companies that have a slimy Ken Baker, a dribbling Roy Hattersley or even a pallid, pea-pushing John Major to thank for their birth. But as a small, young firm based at Pinewood Studios, Eleksen has perhaps one of the stranger histories in the UK technology sector.

In 1998 two special effects and animatronics specialists who were working on television’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image developed a new textile to make the puppets’ skin appear far more lifelike. From these unusual beginnings Eleksen has continued to develop ‘smart fabrics’ and is now poised to make real headway in the burgeoning field of wearable computing.

Andrew Newman is product manager at Eleksen and responsible for developing the company’s proprietary technology, ElekTex. Having initially worked at Psion and then Flextronics nothing he did at these two companies had prepared him for having to turn his attention completely to the development of fabrics.

‘This was the first time I’d been involved in fabrics,’ he said. ‘If you come from a traditional engineering background as I have, you will never have touched textiles before. Although technical textiles are quite different from aesthetic textiles you are still dealing with something that is totally alien to you. It was a very steep learning curve.’

Eleksen’s business is geared to marketing and developing ElekTex, its groundbreaking wearable computing system and it has more than 50 worldwide patents on the technology.

At first glance an ElekTex touch sensor hides its technology well. Its innovation lies in the fact that it’s made from 100 per cent fabric and consists of no moving parts, meaning it can be washed, crumpled and, crucially, is ideal for incorporating into clothing.

The sensor consists of three layers, a top and bottom layer of conductive material and a middle layer that conducts electricity when pressure is applied to it. When the fabric is pressed current flows through the middle layer and by measuring the change in voltage resistance it is possible to know where and how hard the fabric has been pressed.

Although Newman was not keen to divulge exactly what the fabric is made from, he confirmed that its secret lies in the composition of the particular yarn and the way it is weaved. ‘Our experience is second to none regarding the interface between soft fabrics and electronics. We have guys here who can take a piece of fabric and tell you the machine that produced it and probably where it was made as well,’ he said.

Early products that have incorporated ElekTex have been very much geared towards the consumer end of the market. One of the first applications was in ski jackets and clothing for extreme sports enthusiasts. In partnership with outdoor clothing companies O’Neill, Kenpo and Spyder, an ElekTex sensor interface on the jacket’s sleeve allows skiers or snowboarders to use their iPod without taking it out of their pocket. A call to a Bluetooth-enabled phone inside the jacket can also be controlled via the sleeve controls and automatically pauses the music when a call is coming through.

As a basic idea, an MP3 interface embedded in clothing is nothing new but, according to Newman, nobody else has combined electronics using a 100 per cent soft interface. It is this crucial difference, the lack of a hard, rigid interface, that should appeal to both manufacturers and consumers, he said.

A new application launched by Eleksen in January is a fabric keyboard to be used with smart phones and PDAs. Early designs for flexible keyboards for PDAs — in conjunction with Orange — had been handset-specific which made each one obsolete as the handset it was paired with fell from favour. The new keyboard uses Bluetooth technology to connect to most mobile phones instead.

On a pad of thin, black fabric, the letters of the conventional QWERTY keyboard are outlined in white. As an array of buttons incorporating a single large sensor the ElekTex keyboard allows a number of different movements to be translated into an analogue signal. By touching different parts of the sensor a set of co-ordinates is produced that can then be understood by a PDA or a PC.

The sensor’s responsiveness also allows simple scrolling to be translated into readable output. Tracing a light finger across the fabric generates an algorithm that can then be interpreted inside the small separate electronics box that contains the hardware. This movement is the same as was used in the ski jackets to adjust the iPod’s volume. It can also follow random movement allowing control of a mouse cursor scrolling across the screen.

The keypad can also detect more complicated movement as part of the ‘elaborate scroll’ function. ‘Because it can detect every part of the movement across the sensor you can trace something like a Nike tick and that will give a certain output if it is something that is recognised by the system,’ said Newman.

‘It measures the resistance drop in voltage across two points. We can then translate that into a co-ordinate on that sensor and if we know there is a voltage drop where the Q letter is supposed to be, we know that Q has been pressed.’

An important characteristic is that relative force applied to the sensor can also be monitored. Working in an invented unit of relative force that Eleksen has named ‘counts’, Newman explained that the harder the sensor is pressed, the lower the resistance, resulting in what is, in effect, a sensor-wide variable resistor.

ElekTex’s selling point in the sports industry is its durability and flexibility and the company goes to great lengths to make sure that its technology can stand up to the most rigorous testing procedures. As well as being breathable, semi-transparent and washable, the sensor is tough. According to Newman, the keyboard can be punctured with something conductive like a knitting needle which produces a short circuit and if the object is removed the sensor will still work 90 per cent of the time. Durability is a useful attribute, particularly when you are selling clothing to devil-may-care snowboarders launching down mountainsides.

However, Newman believes that the potential for the technology will eventually extend well beyond either the piste or consumer electronics. The company is currently working on applications for the healthcare, military and automotive sectors. One use of ElekTex under the spotlight is the development of an inbuilt touchpad for the emergency services. Newman said that while many squad cars have emergency buttons inside to summon back-up there is a real need for police officers to have something similar on their person.

‘We are looking at integrating a touch panel inside the vest or uniform which would call up help with a touch, and the benefits of using ElekTex are that it is extremely lightweight and does not add any extra hardware that the police officer would have to carry,’ he said.

Military applications could follow along similar lines, with a fabric control panel for a two-way radio or a GPS receiver embedded in the material of the uniform.

While still based at Pinewood Studios because of its Spitting Image heritage Eleksen has come a long way. It has moved from satirical puppetry to cutting-edge wearable computing within the past eight years and the future looks bright. Analysts have estimated that the potential for growth in smart fabrics is huge and the industry is expected to generate more than £250m by 2008.

Newman shares the analysts’ optimism. ‘A smart fabric like this really is the Holy Grail and we are very excited about where it could go from here.’