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Start-up promotes electric clothes, backpacks

In the future, your coat may be able to make phone calls and shoes may record your distance. Photos: A keyboard in your pocket

The next user interface, according to Eleksen, will be the sleeve.

The British-based start-up says the booming growth in consumer electronics has opened the door for commercial exploitation of its invention: fabric that can conduct electricity. The trick is that it doesn't contain wires or metal contacts: The company's five layer Elektex fabric feels and looks sort of like nylon and can be incorporated unobtrusively into windbreakers, carrying cases or key fobs.

"People always look for the wires," said CEO Robin Shephard, fingering the fabric.

On Wednesday, Eleksen announced a deal with outdoor apparel manufacturer O'Neill to incorporate the fabric in its H2 apparel line, which includes a backpack with a built-in solar panel and coat with a control panel for cell phones or MP3 players. The coat will also contain built-in headphones and microphones, so you won't have to take your coat off to speak or listen to music. A built-in Bluetooth module handles communications and also switches feeds from the MP3 player to the phone and vice versa.

Eleksen's fabric has already been incorporated into a recliner as well as a jacket from Spyder Active Sports. The Spyder coat currently costs $3,000, but the products containing the company's fabric will come down in price. One large Asian manufacturer plans to come out with a line of coats with the fabric for the mid-range; the company is also talking to shoe manufacturers.

Overall, incorporating the fabric adds less than $20 to the overall cost, Shephard said. Electric fabrics could become a $500 million market by 2008, according to statistics promoted by the company.

Eleksen is also talking with Taiwanese manufacturers to come out with a $99 fabric keyboard that can be rolled up in a tube as well as other PC peripherals.

Chalk it up to puppets. The underlying technology was developed several years ago by Dan Sandbach and Chris Chapman, two material scientists working on Splitting Image, the puppet show that skewered leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They designed the fabric to give the puppets more natural movements. The show ended, but the two continued to tinker with the material and formed the company in 1998.

The technology essentially creates a touch pad in fabric out of five layers of material. When an individual touches the fabric, the five layers press together. The two outer layers, which are woven, and the middle layer, which is knitted, conduct electricity; hence, making contact with the layers creates a circuit and sends an electrical signal to a processor. The processor then translates information about the contact--location of the touch, pressure exerted by a finger--into commands for a device. If the finger hit the spot that represents "play," music begins. Swishing a finger rapidly over a protective bag for an MP3 player cranks up the volume.

"You create resistance wherever you touch it. That will give you a very articulated X, Y and Z (coordinate points)," Shephard said. "As soon as you understand where the fabric is addressed and gets the information to the CPU, that's it."

For the first few years, the company, which counts 3i and Siemens Ventures as investors, chased too many opportunities, Shephard said. In 2004 for instance, Eleksen created 109 prototypes and landed only three deals. This year the number of prototypes will be reduced to between 20 and 30. Sales, however, are finally climbing.

"We will do several million dollars this year as compared to the square root of zero last year," said Shephard, who came to the company last year.

Whether the technology succeeds and where it could go next remains to be seen. O'Neill's first products are designed for winter sports, but the fabric is waterproof so, conceivably, it could be incorporated into wet suits too.

The keyboard in a tube, which will probably go on sale later this year, will be touted at the Computex conference in Taipei next week. The keyboard actually evolved from a project with Logitech, which attached an Eleksen keypad to a handheld it briefly sold.

Once a market gets established for consumer devices like keyboards and coats, Eleksen will then try to get into the medical device market.

"It is completely doable, but it takes a two-year cycle," Shepard said. "You have the investment and legal issues."