AUSTIN, Texas—”The tech couldn’t be seen as slapped on the garment,” Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google’s Advanced Technology And Products (ATAP) group, told the crowd during his weekend South by Southwest panel. “So we started from the core—the yarn—we built starting there and went from the ground up. The first yarn we brought, I remember Levi’s looked at us funny and said, ‘you know that’s going to break right?'”
“It’s called singing denim,” responded Paul Dillinger, vice president for global innovation at Levi’s. “You expose the cloth to an open flame which burns excess cotton. So we said, ‘You have this great tech, but you understand we’re going to blow torch this right? We’re going to do this to an open flame.’ Frankly, I was doing it to scare them off, but then Ivan’s response was ‘what’s the fuel source for this flame?’ He wanted to learn how to solve this problem.”
You read that correctly: at SXSW this weekend, Google visionaries sat hobnobbing with style icons from Levi’s as they discussed thread and production techniques. That’s because this fall, the companies will release what can crudely be referred to as a smart jacket. Named Project Jacquard, this is by no means a new entity. Google first announced its intentions to make smart textiles back at Google I/O 2015, and last year the idea of debuting the technology in a commuter jacket form factor became public. But with Jacquard inching closer to an actual release, SXSW gave these two collaborators another opportunity to explain. More importantly, the event presented these companies with the first high-profile opportunity to let the attending public reach out and wear the thing.
“At first, we wanted to put a display on it, the bigger the better,” said Poupyrev. “But Paul said ‘no, there can’t be blinks on the jacket, we don’t do that. Our customers are cool urban people and blinking on your jacket is uncool.'”
Hip looks and functionality
All of this sounds wonderful in principle, but all the panel jargon in the world means nothing if it’s not as exciting in practice. Luckily, Levi’s has a brand installation on 3rd street near the Austin convention center, so anyone can come by to learn, demo, and wear the new Jacquard tech throughout the week.
During the panel, Dillinger mentioned how the overarching challenge Levi’s kept giving Google was the fact that, as a garment, Jacquard had to be machine washable. “You know at the end of the day, we’re going to wash that right?” he said. “It became the ultimate tension between our expertises—you don’t drop your smart phone in there.”
This Jacquard commuter jacket solves the problem by hosting some of its tech in what’s essentially an extended USB drive that enables the smart capabilities. To initiate the jacket, you plug the USB into a small inlet on the underside of the left wrist, then snap the top half of it into place like a button (the button then briefly glows in a blue circle, providing a visual cue that all systems are go). Without this in place, it’s just another jacket… albeit one with native touch capabilities lying dormant.
I own several Levi’s jeans, a pair of khaki-colored pants from the commuter line, and one of the classic trucker jackets (I lived in San Francisco at one point; it’s practically standard issue). While I would not declare myself a denim expert, the touch-enabled area of the jacket did not look or feel any different from these other Levi’s products during the short SXSW demo. I could not tell there was anything unique going on through sight or touch of my left wrist. And given how Levi’s jackets tend to cuff, the left wrist didn’t even wear differently than the right one.
Jacquard will come with an accompanying app to help set up what “abilities” you’d like assigned to any of the jacket’s five accepted gestures: brush out (up towards your fingers), brush in (towards your arm), double tap, full palm, and a circular motion. The abilities include things like stopping and starting music, forwarding songs in a playlist, checking the time of day, receiving directions, hearing the estimated time left within a trip, dismissing or accepting phone calls, counting actions (the demo used “glasses of water consumed” as an example), and learning about new texts (with the ability to respond via a pre-set message). When receiving calls or texts, Jacquard gives you a small bit of haptic feedback via a little rumble on the wrist.
I was able to go through the process of starting the jacket, trying three of its actions (double tap and both swipes), and swapping abilities in and out through the app. Initial setup is also done through the app, beginning with a screen asking you to swipe across the 15 conductive threads in order to calibrate the touch surface to your hands and pressure. Other aspects of the app include the ability to designate certain contacts as VIPs (and then limit call and text alerts to VIPs-only) and explicit reminders that the USB-like device needs to be removed before washing. There’s even a “Reflections” pane that shows details like count totals, how far you’ve ridden in the last day, or what day was most “memorable” (aka, where you used your jacket functions the most).
Now, everything happened in a controlled environment. The associated smartphone was within arms’ length and connected to a Bluetooth speaker (rather than playing audio directly or working through headphones, both more likely commuter setups). But Jacquard registered every swipe and tap I took, and there were no instances of missed changes as I choose what abilities to assign within the app. Responsiveness to starting and stopping the music was quick, and even the delay needed to get information like estimated time left in a trip was brief. The tech worked without a single noticeable hiccup during the 10-minute demo.
It’d be great to test out a few more likely real-world scenarios—is connectivity and responsiveness during riding this quick? How long can I go between USB charges? If I wear the jacket at a concert or a party and control the playlist, what happens if a jerk spills a beer while the USB stick is on my wrist?—but Jacquard undeniably made a great first impression. The look and fit are aligned with typical Levi’s quality, and the tech intuitively “just works” as you’d expect from Google.
Listing image by Nathan Mattise
note picture is from https://www.engadget.com/2017/03/11/google-levis-commuter-smart-jacket-price/