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The commuter sitting across from you with one hand in his pocket and an intent look on his face is probably just fiddling with a mobile phone or media player.

If he’s fiddling with his pocket itself or the sleeve of his jacket, either you should move away – or he could be trying out Eleksen’s new reference design for fabric buttons, which mean any developer can build a controller out of fabric rather than plastic. If he’s staring at his pocket too, it could be the new Eleksen wearable display module. Either way, it could be your app at his fingertips.

Founded by graduates of the Spitting Image puppet workshops, Eleksen has developed a way of making fabric conduct, so it works as buttons you can press. Its best known product is a roll-up fabric keyboard but the company also produced a fabric case for the Samsung Q1 that’s a keyboard too; “if you have a UMPC”, points out Eleksen’s John Collins, “you’re going to have a sleeve to protect it but why does it have to be a dumb sleeve?” Their buttons are also going into G-Tech messenger bags, backpacks from O’Neill and clothing with built-in iPod controls from brands like Kenpo, Spyder, Koyono and Scottevest. Controls embossed into leather or a Japanese down jacket with coloured gem buttons; it’s Eleksen underneath.

These products use Eleksen’s iPod controller but the new kits mean you can either create your own buttons or put Windows Sideshow with a gadget for your app into any object you can attach fabric to. Sideshow is part of Windows Vista and takes information from the PC, like email messages, contacts, RSS feeds or anything else you want to code up using the new .NET Micro Framework, and puts it on other devices, which can be an extra screen on a laptop, a digital photo frame or a backpack. That way you can check the address of the meeting you’re supposed to be at or even flick through your PowerPoint slides for a quick refresher without needing to pull out your laptop.

Eleksen calls it the wearable display module, but the 2.5 in. screen might be a little large for most clothing. There’s 1GB of storage for the information that transfers from the PC (either by Bluetooth or a USB connection if you think your users will plug their backpack in). And the fabric control pad has seven buttons: four navigation arrows, menu, back and go. Sideshow essentially presents lists of information that you can navigate through and select items from, because you’re viewing rather than creating or editing information.

If you want to create your own buttons, look for the new evaluation kit which gives you a swatch of fabric, a USB connection to your computer and sample software interfaces to use the sensor as a QWERTY keyboard, controls for music or video and a sketchpad (because you can use the fabric as a touchpad).

Buttons on Eleksen fabric aren’t fixed function or shape; the only thing you’re limited by is what you print onto the fabric to tell people where to press. So the same piece of fabric can be a music controller, a trackpad, a keyboard and a custom interface to your application. Eleksen is talking to a partner about using electroluminescence to let you change the appearance of buttons on the fly, but for now the evaluation kit is to help you test your code before you start building a custom fabric controller.

By the middle of the year Eleksen will have a development kit with more tools and automatic code generation. If you want people to use your application on the go without pulling out a laptop, Eleksen’s fabrics and tools give you the option of truly wearable computing. ®

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