Last week, at a featured session of the 2017 SXSW (South by Southwest Festival), Jacquard by Google and Levi’s® announced that their first commercial piece of interactive fashion would go on sale this year for $350. It’s a classic-looking denim jacket with a cumbersome name—the Commuter Trucker Jacket. Jacquard is one of the research divisions at Google’s ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects Group)—Google’s skunkworks.
FROM CONDUCTIVE YARNS TO CONNECTED CLOTHING
The Google engineers began with a couple of simple concepts. Woven fabrics bear a remarkable resemblance to the flat structures used in our touch interfaces for computers. What’s essentially different is that the interfaces are conductive, and electricity won’t flow through threads and yarns. But yarns can be spun with several threads, and that allows for the possibility of “structures [that] combine thin metallic alloys with natural and synthetic yarns like cotton, polyester, or silk, making the yarn strong enough to be woven on any industrial loom.”
The interlacing of the threads into fabrics could then provide conductive cloth that has the geometric design of a wired interface. This curious intersection of computers, cloth, and history calls to mind the original Jacquard loom of 1804. As Wikipedia reminds us, “The loom was controlled by a ‘chain of cards’, a number of punched cards, laced together into a continuous sequence.” The rows of punched holes directed the instructions that controlled the design of each line woven into the fabric. “This use of replaceable punched cards to control a sequence of operations,” the article continues, “is considered an important step in the history of computing hardware.” Cards with holes that contain instruction sets later reappeared as stacks of punched cards that contained code for the earliest computers.
There were two avenues available once the technique of spinning the conductive threads/yarns was perfected. The Jacquard developers explain, “Using conductive yarns, bespoke touch and gesture-sensitive areas can be woven at precise locations, anywhere on the textile. Alternatively, sensor grids can be woven throughout the textile, creating large, interactive surfaces.” You can weave into the shirt or jacket a small area in a convenient location or the whole garment could be wired and connected. For the Commuter Trucker Jacket, the interactive surface is woven into the sleeve, on top of the wrist. In the photo below, it’s the bumpy surface to the right of the button.
Think of it as a cellphone or laptop touchpad on your arm, and you use your fingers to swipe or tap, just as you would with a touchscreen. The computer could be your phone in your pocket, which you control without reaching for it. Take calls, dismiss calls, play music, get turn-by-turn directions for driving, walking, or navigating on your bike. The flap and the button to the left of the fabric touchpad are not just sleeve fasteners.
The conductive yarns in the sleeve are connected to the button, which house chip connectors that add additional touch and gesture instructions with tap and tap-and-hold possibilities. All of the sleeve’s instructions can be transmitted to mobile phones, tablets, laptops, external speakers, and so on. Direct feedback to the user is possible using LEDs on the buttons or haptic touch responses on the sleeve.
And now, after a fairly long period of development, the first app/garment will go on sale later this year. This is what it looks like:
Now if you think about what “wearable technology” has looked like so far, with bulky virtual reality goggles or helmets, or most of the early fashion-absent smartwatches, this latest example certainly looks unusually normal—like most other nonwired Levi’s jackets. No wires, no lumpy connector boxes—just a jacket. Neat.
For their part, the Jacquard team has declared their technology “a blank canvas” not only for fashion designers but for those technologists who specialize in human/computer interfaces. On their website, they explain, “We are just at the beginning. And we are really excited to see what people are going to do with it.”