Smart fabric

A new technology developed by the Canadian Space Agency to help control the new robot arm on the International Space Station may soon be finding its way into your car, your couch, and even your clothes.

It’s called smart fabric, because it turns fabric into a sensitive computer interface.

The underlying technology, called Kinotex, was developed by the CSA to enhance the dexterity of the robot arm and to provide it with a sense of touch, so that it could tell when it made contact with something and stop its motion before any damage occurred. The technology also had to be robust enough to use in outer space.

Smart fabric consists of network of fiber optic threads, each thinner than a human hair, sandwiched between foam layers. Each depression in the foam alters the light stream running through those threads in a different way. You can press the foam, dig your fingers into it, even grab it and twist it, and a computer can interpret the resulting signals with great sensitivity. By assigning functions to the various permutations, you can use the smart fabric to run, via computer, pretty much anything you want.

Many laptop computers already use a touch pad in place of a mouse–you can control your pointer just by running your finger over the pad. The new technology, however, allows the computer to interpret the touch not just of one finger, but of all of them, and to react not just to their placement, but how hard you’re pressing them down, how they’re curved, and more.

The new smart fabric control interfaces can also be any size, large or small; flat, curved, or flexible; and covered in a variety of materials from leather to metal foil without affecting performance.

Bringing smart fabric down to Earth is the goal of a company called Canpolar East, which has the exclusive license to the CSA patent. Among its subsidiary companies is one in Victoria called Tactex, which has already created a computer touchpad, the MTC Express (which costs $495 U.S.) that uses smart fabric.

The MTC Express won the Most Innovative Product of the Year award at the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, California, last month. That’s because the touchpad promises to give musicians a whole new way to interact with electronic devices.

For instance, a California company, Midiman, has turned the touchpad, which is only a few centimetres across, into a mixing board for musicians called Surface One. The touchpad is so sensitive and programmable that it can control all the tracks and the program fade ins and outs, activate special audio effects, control a light board at a performance and act as a synthesizer, all at once. Musicians such as Beck and technical people such as the sound engineer for David Lynch’s films have already expressed interest in Surface One, which lets them control effect with their fingertips, just like playing a guitar.

Probably the next use for smart fabric will be in videogame controllers that let players control characters with much more intuitive gestures than joysticks or gamepads allow.

But that’s just the beginning. Fabric that can communicate with a computer opens up a fascinating range of possibilities. Imagine, for example, clothes that change color or play music when touched or moved in a certain fashion. Think what fashion designer could do with the former, and dancers with the latter.

Think of what artists could do with smart fabric. They could draw and paint electronically with their fingers; even create virtual 3-D sculptures, working smart fabric as though they were working clay.

Imagine a couch that turns on the TV automatically when you sit in it–and lets you change the channel simply by tracing the channel number you want on the couch’s arm. Or think of a car seat that knows which member of the family is sitting in it by the shape of that person’s, um, anatomy, and adjusts itself–and the height at which the airbag is set to deploy–accordingly.

How about a mattress that detects your restless tossing at night and plays soothing environmental sounds or music until you settle down, or a carpet that knows who is entering a room by the characteristics of the feet it “feels” and adjusts room lighting and temperature according to preset commands–or turns on the radio or TV.

As Tactex puts it, smart fabric control surfaces give humans a new way to control “their computers, instruments, toys and tools.”

It’s amazing stuff–and best of all, it’s Canadian.

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