One of Frog's big predictions was that 2015 would be the year that textiles got techy. Maybe it heard rumblings of Project Jacquard, Google's new venture to weave touch controls into textiles right on the loom.
Project Jacquard is the latest gambit from Ivan Poupyrev, the legendary interaction designer who Google, by way of Motorola, poached from Disney Research in 2013. Designed within Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP, which Google described on stage at I/O last week as their "small, scrappy group of pirates working on wicked cool shit"), Project Jacquard gives textile manufacturers the ability to impregnate their cloth with a new kind of braided conductive thread. Unlike regular conductive thread, like the kind used in various touch-screen-enabled gloves, this thread comes in any color, and can be used in any existing industrial loom or machine. When coupled with a small Bluetooth controller running on a standard watch battery kept in a dedicated pocket, it will give any garment or piece of cloth the ability to pair with other gadgets and operate like a touch screen.
Striding on stage at Google I/O wearing a linen jacket threaded with touch-capacitive sensors, Poupyrev pointed out that while smart garments are nothing new, they're still fringe novelties. Why? Because they because they just aren't realistic to mass-produce at scale.
"The clothing industry makes 19 billion garments per year," observes Poupyrev. "Compare that to the 128 million smartphones made last year. So when we talk about interactive textiles, we need to think about it at the scale of clothes manufacturing, using existing supply chains and existing industrial weaving machines." And those supply chains and machines? They're torture on sensitive electronic components. Before a garment hits a clothes store near you, it will be stretched, washed, and even blasted with fire.
So imagine a pair of jeans where you can invisibly control media playback on your smartphone, silence an incoming call, adjust your home's smart lights, send simple messages to friends, and more. All without pulling out your phone, just by tapping and swiping on the fabric. Actually, no need to imagine such a pair of jeans: denim maker Levi's, expects to release a pair in early 2016.
I spoke to Levi's VP of Innovation, Paul Dillinger, who says that the reason Jacquard is so exciting is that it will allow Levi's customers to bridge their digital and physical lives in a really tactile, pleasing way. "At home, we're always burying our faces in screens; out in the wild, if you get a call while you're biking, you might risk your phone or your life to dig it out of your pocket," Dillinger notes. Why not turn your pair of jeans or your jacket into a more natural, ambient way to interact with your devices without actually having to give them your full attention?
Why start with jeans? According to Dillinger and Poupyrev, it's because almost nothing gets tortured during the production process like denim. If Project Jacquard can do jeans, it can do pretty much any other fabric, with the possible exception of Nike-style space age textiles that have seams joined together with a scary amount of heat. But Project Jacquard can deal with all of the exceptional rigors of the jeans-making process, except for ripping. About the fact that jeans rip, though Dillinger isn't concerned. "You know, we spend a lot of time designing the 'artful rips' in our jeans," he says. "So we can design around that." And Poupyrev notes that the idea behind Jacquard isn't necessarily to make your entire garment into a touch screen, just a patch of it. As long as that smaller patch doesn't rip, the tech will continue to work.
Project Jacquard is coming along at a good time. Recent projections from from Gartner predict that "smart garments" will become a regular part of our wardrobes. By 2016, smart garments are expected to make up 26 million of the 91 million units shipped for wearables, vs. 19 million for wristbands. And it's only going to get bigger from there.
And while Levi's is the first Project Jacquard partnership, jeans aren't the only possible applications. Throw out your remote: imagine a couch arm rest that can wirelessly control your TV. A pillow that controls the volume on your stereo. A set of curtains that you can use to adjust your smart lighting. A carpet that's also a DDR dance pad. Or a table cloth that can control all the appliances in your smart kitchen. Project Jacquard makes such innovations possible.