Imagine being able to adjust your car's radio volume or turn on the windshield wipers just by swiping your hand across the surface of your car seat as if it were a touchscreen. Such technology may be closer to reality than you think.
The recent development of a soft polymer-based fiber with electrical properties that respond to touch has led to a myriad of applications, with BMW now planning to install "smart fabric" seats and console surfaces in future car models, reports New Scientist.
"In essence we are trying to reproduce the smartphone experience in textile form," said researcher Maksim Skorobogatiy of the Polytechnic School in Montreal, Canada. "We are looking for applications where we can weave in sleek, non-invasive control, avoiding blocks of push buttons."
Buttons, switches and dials can also become burdensome — and a safety hazard — for drivers who need to make adjustments while they're on the move. The ability to swipe your finger across the car seat to tailor the settings of your radio, heater or air conditioner, or anything else, might help drivers keep their eyes on the road.
The fibers are made by rolling conducting and insulating polymer films around a copper wire, which are then heated to about 200 degrees C (about 400 degrees F) and stretched out until soft and elastic. The resulting fibers not only have electrical properties that change depending on where they are touched, but they can be woven into fabrics. Best yet, these fabrics can be easily cleaned without harming their function, something most previous smart fiber designs failed to accomplish.
The number of potential applications for the technology goes far beyond car interiors. Couches with touch-sensitive arm rests could forever change the convenience of home entertainment. Soon it might be possible to replace your television's remote control with touchscreen furniture. Your sofa (or maybe even your Snuggie) could become a virtual command center, giving you easy control over the dimming of the lights or home music system.
For now, though, it looks like luxury cars may become the first major application of the technology. In March, BMW rolled out a concept car with a touch-sensitive surface that allows the driver to control the heating and music systems via gestures.
"Touch-sensitive surfaces are a very interesting technology for controlling operations in a car," said BMW spokeswoman Melina Aulinger.