US space agency Nasa has enlisted a County Durham firm's ground-breaking technology to enable it to control a moon buggy at the touch of a textile button.

A joint venture between Darlington's Peratech and Ronz Eurolab, of West Yorkshire, created an electronic composite material which can be used in clothes and other textiles to operate a wide variety of instruments and equipment.

Nasa hopes the multi-functional product, known as Softswitch technology, will in time enable the first astronauts setting foot on Mars to manoeuvre a buggy from a panel on their gloves.

The Softswitch technology was designed out of a meeting of minds.

Electronic materials experts Peratech and textiles specialists Ronz combined to good effect on the project which appears to be taking the world by storm.

A more down-to-earth use for the product was unveiled at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, where the world's first electronic jacket was put on show.

Matt Le Blanc, of TV sitcom Friends fame, was among the first people to buy one of the new garments .

They link the latest snowboarding clothing design to computer specialist Apple's new iPod portable digital music player.

The Burton Amp, produced by Burton Snowboards, employs Softswitch expertise to allow snowboarders to play thousands of songs from a panel on their jackets.

The key to Softswitch's success is its flexibility and durability in extreme climates.

Chris Lussey, technical director at Peratech and a director of Softswitch, said the technology is integrated into textiles without upsetting its composition and properties.

He said: "It responds exactly the same way as a normal textile. It could be in your clothing, in your car or in your home. It feels the same, it looks the same, it all remains the same."

The success of the Softswitch design was recognised by Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice-president of worldwide product marketing, at the Expo.

He said: "Having your entire music library with you on the slopes and being able to control it all from the arm of your jacket is so cool."

Mr Lussey said Nasa's involvement has lifted the work to a new dimension: "It is very exciting that there is the potential to see this technology in outer space. It is also very exciting to see the launching of products containing this technology here on Earth.

"Softswitch is going down a storm."

Further innovations incorporating Softswitch technology are due for release later this year. The Burton Amp snowboarding jacket can be seen on the Apple website at