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Inside The Design Of Google's First Smart Jacket

Google's futuristic Project Jacquard is making its commercial debut—as a jean jacket.

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Last year, Google announced Project Jacquard: an intriguing plan to turn all of your clothes into touchscreen controllers, partnering with Levi's to incorporate the technology into its denim products.

Now, a year later, and Levi's and Google have announced the first retail garment with Project Jacquard inside: the Levi's Commuter x Jacquard, a trucker jacket with a multitouch sleeve that lets you control your Android smartphone—without ever pulling it out of your pocket.


Why A Jacket?

During an ATAP presentation at Google I/O on Friday, interaction designer Ivan Poupyrev and Levi's VP of Innovation, Paul Dillinger, took the stage to show off what the Commuter x Jacquard could do. The jacket has a patch on the sleeve that serves as the interface between you and your phone. It's aimed primarily at bike commuters; a cyclist riding down the street could tap the sleeve of their jacket to get an ETA on how long it will take for them to reach work, swipe the cuff to cycle songs on Spotify, double tap to accept an incoming call, or triple tap to dismiss it.

Last year when I spoke to Poupyrev and Dillinger about the Jacquard-Levi's partnership, both spoke in loose terms about what they intended to do—except to say that Google had chosen Levi's as an initial partner for Jacquard because "if you can make Jacquard work with denim, you can do it with anything." This is because denim goes through a notoriously tortuous manufacturing process, which involves the material being literally blasted with fire at one stage. So the first question I asked them this year was why they decided to make a jacket—instead of a pair of jeans or some other product.

The decision to make a jacket, says Dillinger, ultimately came from a desire to make a garment which was useful all the time. "How many jeans do you have in your closet, compared to how many jackets?" he asks. "In our research, we discovered that 70% of our customers have at least one jacket they wear more than three days a week." He points out that there aren't many garments that we find personally or socially acceptable to wear more than half of our waking lives without changing.


Developing UX Standards For Fashion

So in appearance, the Levi's Commuter x Jacquard is a fairly standard denim trucker jacket, with Project Jacquard woven into the wrist. The controller, which connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone, is a flexible rubber dongle. But it doesn't look like one: it looks like a cuff. It connects to the Project Jacquard patch by snapping on like a button near the sleeve, then wrapping around the cuff, like the fabric loop attached to the buttons on the cuff of a classic trench coat. "We wanted the controller to function within the existing vocabulary of fashion," Dillinger tells me. The controller plugs into a standard USB port to juice, and can go days without a charge.

Another way in which Jacquard has been adapted to fit within the existing vocabulary of denim is the way the touch panel is woven into the garment. Poupyrev says that one of the UX problems they've wrestled with in Jacquard is how visible to make the touch panel. Make it too prominent, and it distracts from the integrity of a garment; make it invisible, and users don't know where to touch. In the case of the jacket, Levi's and Google came up with a beautiful compromise that makes the Jacquard panel visible but is still authentic to the way denim is made.

In denim manufacturing, there's a natural weaving flaw called a missed pick in the weft, which represents itself as a visible seam in the material: a dark line, representing a literal gap where a line of thread is missing in the piece of cloth. It's totally natural, and since it's a problem that mostly happens on denim that is hand woven on older machines, missed picks are strongly associated with vintage denim.

With the Commuter jacket, Levi's integrated Jacquard by weaving the conductive threads of the technology into a grid of purposely missed weft picks. So, instead of looking high-tech, the Jacquard patch on the jacket looks charmingly imperfect, and desirably bespoke. "I'm just amazed at the poetry of that solution," says Poupyrev. By introducing this weaving error on purpose, Levi's gave the Commuter jacket an authenticity amongst denim lovers that it might otherwise have lacked.

Eventually, says Poupyrev, Google wants to find ways to work with other garment makers to integrate Jacquard into products. "The whole point of Jacquard is to work within the confines of existing production techniques to make fabric smarter," he says. "So the trick for every kind of material is to find an implementation of Jacquard that does not feel like an imposition upon [each fabric or garment] maker's craft." So whether Jacquard comes to men's suits, silk scarves, Victoria's Secret bras, or high-tech Speedos next, it needs to do so in a way that feels authentic to the material.

In the meantime, Project Jacquard will be exclusive to the Levi's Commuter x Jacquard. It will launch in beta in autumn this year, and start shipping in 2017—at a price that Levi's says shouldn't prompt consumers used to purchasing high-performance denim jackets to run screaming for the hills.

All Images: courtesy Levi's Commuter x Jacquard

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