Fingertip control

Imagine being able to control all the electronic equipment in your home with a snap of a finger. That is what researchers at Engineered Fibre Structures (EFS), a University of Manchester spin-out, were thinking when they developed a soft-fabric electronic glove that remotely controls equipment via a Bluetooth connection.

The glove is produced from standard acrylic or stretch-nylon base yarn and it can be made on a conventional industrial knitting machine. The wearable device looks and feels like a normal glove, except it has conductive pathways knitted into the material. The fingers are tipped with contactors, so if a user puts his or her thumb together with any other finger, they will create an electric circuit. The glove is completely wireless and its power pack and Bluetooth device is mounted at the cuff.

The glove was recently patented by EFS, and the company’s engineers believe its current configuration is best designed for gaming. Billy Hunter, the lead commercial director for the product, said this sort of application would be a commercial success judging by current trends. ‘You’ve got all these sort of things out now like Nintendo Wii,’ he said. ‘Interactive gaming has come back in again.’

Engineers at EFS tested the use of the glove with a virtual instrument computer game. The demonstrator fiddled his fingers to simulate the plucking of guitar strings on the PC screen.

However, Hunter said the applications for these gloves could go beyond the gaming world. He and the other developers have been talking to clinical partners in some of Manchester University’s five teaching hospitals.

‘We think there are rehabilitation applications,’ he said. ‘Stroke victims, for example — they perform all sorts of exercises to get movement back. So what you really need is an exercise with some sort of feedback mechanism, so you can see whether they’re improving.’

Hunter said there are other applications in the healthcare sector. For example, people who are wheelchair or bed-bound could use the glove to control remote electrical objects around the home.

The glove is the latest product to be developed by EFS engineers, but they have also designed many other related knitted devices. They have, for instance, patented medical textiles with knitted sensors that measure cardiological variables.

They have also created a host of garments made with fabrics that have heated structures knitted within them. These garments have found a variety of industrial applications such as gloves for people who work in refrigeration. The heated material has also been used for outdoor wear for extreme conditions.

EFS’s electrotextile expertise has also found applications in the automotive industry. The engineers have developed fabrics that are able to be installed into door panels and have window controls or lock buttons knitted within them. This could replace normal mechanical switches.

‘The idea was to minimise the amount of wiring in the door panel and to simplify the whole thing,’ Hunter said. ‘It also made it less labour-intensive to assemble.’

Hunter said the engineers at EFS ‘stumbled on the idea’ for their latest knitted technology. ‘The actual creation of the glove was not that difficult for us because we use something called flat bed knitting technology,’ he said.

‘Flat bed knitting machines are built for the industrial, sweater-making industry. They’re probably one of the most advanced textile technologies around, and they allow you to make 3D objects and position yarns and fibres very accurately within those objects.’

The engineers are content with the current configuration of the glove, but for certain applications they might need to do some redesigning.

For example, they have thought about the glove being used as a mobile phone. For this, additional contactors would be sewn into it and the user would need to wear another glove that had a miniature keyboard knitted into the fabric. A small screen would be mounted on the wrist.

‘The textile part of the glove is more or less done,’ said Hunter. ‘If necessary, we can change the configuration fairly easily. What we need to do now is to miniaturise the electronics in the Bluetooth.’

With a little more funding, Hunter believes that will be completed fairly soon.

EFS is still looking for an industrial partner to take its product to market. After talking with some prospective companies, Hunter estimates the glove could be available for gaming in six to 12 months time.