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Thursday, 9 November, 2000, 16:56 GMT
Wear the parts on your sleeve
fabric keyboard Elektex
The cloth keyboard connected to a Palm computer
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

Dressing smartly might soon mean wearing a jacket with a built-in phone.

The fabric could be velvet, denim or a nice chintz - whatever you want

Bob Metcalfe, Elektex spokesman
A UK company has developed a clever cloth that can be used to make wearable and washable gadgets.

Buckinghamshire-based Elektex has developed a technique that weaves wires into cloth to turn humble fabrics into something much smarter.

The first cloth keyboards, phones and gadgets should be available next year.

Gadgets galore

While the number of gadgets is proliferating all the time, many can only be fully exploited with the use of a keyboard that makes entering or managing data much easier.

Shrunken, detachable and fold-up keyboards can now be bought for all manner of gadgets to enable people to get the most out of their palmtop computer, MP3 player or mobile phone. But bulky human fingers often have a tough time typing using the tiny keys.

Elektex claims its fabric keyboard could solve many of these problems. It said its full-size cloth keyboard would work on any hard surface and can be rolled up or stuffed in a pocket when not being used.

Elektex showed off its technology at the IT Expo in Cannes earlier this week. A spokesman for the company said it had been almost "overwhelmed" by demand for the clever cloth keyboard.

Weaving a web

Elektex uses wires that are woven into the cloth as it is being produced. The woven wires form a grid covering the whole fabric.

"The fabric could be velvet, denim or a nice chintz - whatever you want," said Bob Metcalfe, a spokesman for the company. "You can have your mobile phone keypad in the sleeve of your jacket."

Pressing on the cloth deforms the wires changing their conductivity. This allows the electronics developed alongside the cloth to work out where the cloth has been pressed and what character this represents.

Just like a computer screen, the fabric can have different resolutions by weaving more or less conductive wires into the cloth.

The Elektex technology is likely to be used first to make keyboards for the popular Palm type computers.

The first cloth keyboards should go on sale early next year said the spokesman. Future applications could be a fabric phone, smart car seats or computerised trousers.

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