Tactex brings technology down to Earth

A Canadian technology designed for use in space has found a home back here on Earth.

Kinotex is a fabric interwoven with fibre optic pressure sensors that act as a “”digital skin.”” The fabric is touch-sensitive and was originally developed by Ernie Reimer, president of St. John’s, Nfld.-based

Canpolar East Inc. for use with the CanadArm and other space-faring robots.

In 1998, Reimer approached Rob Inkster to explore other applications for the fabric. It probably be another five years before Kinotex actually makes its way into space, but by forming a company in Victoria called Tactex Controls Inc., Inkster has successfully marketed the technology for medical, automotive, graphic design and animation applications.

In fact, Tactex signed a licensing agreement with Japanese firm Nitta Corp. to sell the technology in the Asia-Pacific. The agreement was announced during a two-day conference in Tokyo to celebrate Canadian/Japanese cooperation on space technologies.

“”This is a fine example of a technology that was originally funded by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for space application use and which is seeing a multitude of other possible applications and spin-offs in the Earth environment,”” said CSA president Marc Garneau during a Tokyo press conference.

The CSA footed half the bill for R&D, said Inkster, and retains all the rights for Kinotex’s space applications. The first Kinotex product developed by Tactex is the MTC Express touch pad.

“”Instead of a mouse, which is a pointing device, this touchpad keeps track of where all of your fingers are, and how much pressure each finger is exerting,”” explained Inkster.

“”You and I will probably continue to use a mouse and keyboard forever, but there’s lots of other creative applications out there where people are desperately looking for other ways of interacting with the machine.””

Among those people are animators and musicians, he said. The ability to manipulate multiple objects on a screen gives them more flexibility than just pointing and clicking with a mouse. It’s a boon to animators who can “”simultaneously move the hands or the fingers or the features on a face,”” said Inkster.

The touchpads have been in production for about two years, but Inkster doesn’t foresee a day when they’ll replace the mouse. “”When there’s an existing technology that people are really familiar with and used to using, it’s very difficult to displace it, regardless of whatever additional features you might have.””

The company has set its sights on medical applications for the “”digital skin.”” Next up is a bed covered in the material that can sense when a patient is lying on it and record their movements on the bed. That should finish its R&D cycle towards the end of 2003 and be available the following year.

Two years down the road is a similar application, but for cars. A car seat covered in Kinotex could judge the weight of the driver or passenger and determine if it’s safe to deploy the airbag in the event of an accident, according to Inkster. There’s a licensing deal in place with Cherry Automotive, which makes dashboard components and switches for the automotive industry.

In the future, Kinotex could be used for virtual reality applications — for entertainment purposes or maybe for industrial design. Tactex’s manufacturing plant started off producing 500 Kinotex components a month, but has ramped up to 2,000 and, according to Inkster, has the capacity for tens of thousands.

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