Introducing Touchy-Feely Tech
by Leander Kahney
A pair of British inventors has developed an electricity-conducting fabric that could lead to washable, wearable
phones, keyboards and other devices.
The pair have already made a cloth keyboard for handheld computers and a spongy cell phone that will go through
Designers say the new material could lead to an explosion in "soft products."
Developed by Chris Chapman and David Sandbach, a pair of sculptors turned industrial designers, Elektex is made
from conductive fibers woven into ordinary cloth.
Like traditional fabric, Elektex can be washed and ironed, and is extremely durable and cheap to make. But because it
conducts electricity, the fabric lends itself to a whole class of new applications.
It could be used for a TV remote control built into the arm of a sofa, or a keyboard woven into a pair of trousers or
the sleeve of a jacket.
It may lead to carpets that generate sounds or music when walked on, or a smart hospital blanket that prevents bed
sores by warning nurses when an immobile patient needs to be moved.
As well as a keyboard and mobile phone, Elektex has already been used to make a smart car seat that automatically
adjusts itself to the position of the occupant. The inventors also made a necktie that doubles as the keypad for a
"This is seriously going to make a difference to product interfaces," said Chapman. "It's a huge opportunity for people
to reinvent what products look like and to invent products that have never been done before."
The fabric works by detecting changes in conductivity across its intricate web of conducting fibers. Special software
monitors the fabric, pinpointing exactly where deformations occur when the fabric is pressed. The result is a cloth
version of a touch screen, but one that can also tell how firm the button-presses are.
"When it is compressed it changes its conductivity," explained Chapman. "That is monitored by the software to tell
where, and how much it is depressed."
Chapman and Sandbach developed the technology over the past couple of years and cofounded a company,
Electrotextiles, to exploit it.
The pair met at the Exeter School of Art, where they studied sculpture, and ended up working in special effects at
A few years ago they made some hardware for a space mission, which lead to work designing medical sensors. A
dissatisfaction with the inflexibility and rigidity of medical sensors prompted the pair to look at electro-conductive
fibers, originally developed for static-dissipation in carpet and other fabrics.
To turn the fiber into cloth, the pair learned fabric-making techniques, figuring out how to weave and knit the very
fine, electrically conductive fibers into material. They did it using established industrial processes, which will vastly
cut expenses when it comes to mass producing products.
Chapman said after developing Elektex they looked for mass-market products suited to it.
One of the first things they built was a cell-phone tie. The electronics of the phone were built into a small capsule
near the collar, while the tie itself was the dial-pad.
"It worked beautifully," said Chapman, "What could be more convenient than something that's tied around your
neck?" But it was a bit too geeky, people didn't take it seriously."
So the pair started work on a raft of protoype products in communications, medicine, toys and the automotive, and
sports and leisure industries, and began licensing the technology. About 20 companies have signed up so far,
Chapman said agreements with licensees prevented him from discussing most of the new products, but they are
showing off the keyboard, the cell phone and the smart car seat to illustrate Elektex's potential.
"A big problem we have is people don't believe it does what it does," he added. "So we have to make these things to
The first batch of prototype products will be unveiled at the Museum of Modern Art's WorkSpheres show in February.
The first Elektex product, the PDA keyboard, should be available by next summer for about $60 or $70.
"It's here, it's now, it can be delivered. Its just marketing and things like that," Chapman said of the delay.
According to Chapman, the keyboard is as easy to use as a traditional keyboard and even gives tactile feedback. It
wraps around the PDA like a wallet and when unfolded is only a few millimeters thick.
"You just roll it out and start typing away," Chapman said. "Then roll it up again and away you go. It's incredibly thin
and very light.
Elektex is a 50/50 mix of conductive fibers and regular fabric. It can be fashioned into almost any thickness and
texture, from fine silk to thick, spongy neoprene-like material. It can come in any color, and be breathable or
waterproof, opaque or transparent, stretchable or inflexible, Chapman said. It is also very durable.
"You can scrunch it, whack it, smash it, punch it and pummel it," Chapman said. "It's tough stuff."
Sam Hecht, the head of industrial design at the London office of the famous design group, Ideo, which is working
with Electrotextiles, said Elektex has the potential to radically change product design.
For the first time, he said, the skin of a product can be more than just a cover, it can also be part of its workings.
"The skin becomes as intelligent as its contents and that's really a big revolution," he said. "You can build a lot of
things into the surface, not just buttons but sound and sensors."
Hecht said, for example, an MP3 player could have its controls, display and even the speaker incorporated into the
fabric of the housing. The interior would be a few chips and a battery.
"We're taking the product and turning it inside out," he said. "A lot of the components are on the outside. In
industrial design, it's a totally different way of building a product."
Hecht said the sensitivity of the fabric to touch also endows it with all sorts of unusual properties, which could lead
to new device interfaces. It can, for example, respond to stroking movements and even be programmed by the end
"Now it's feasible to allow the customer to say where the buttons should be," said Hecht. "It's the ultimate in
personalization. You tell it where the power button is on your mobile phone and if someone else picks it up, they
won't know how to turn it on, only you do.
"It also has all sorts of ergonomic possibilities," he added. "The nuances of interaction are really quite amazing."
Hecht said his initial reaction to Elektex was one of skepticism but he's since become wildly enthusiastic.
"I thought this is another blue-sky wearable thing that I would never go near, and I've seen a lot of them," he said.
"But with this material, what we discovered is that we shouldn't be looking at this as just fabric.
"It's a new surface and the implications are much bigger. It has the possibility of a revolution. You can make
anything. You can make any product. It's very, very interesting stuff."