Located somewhere inside Google’s sprawling two million feet-square headquarters in California is the Advanced Technologies and Projects group, or ATAP for short. It is a technology incubator not unlike the secretive research lab (Project X) that is behind Google’s self-driving car efforts, or their plan to fill the stratosphere with flying Internet routers.
While X maybe the company’s ‘moonshot’ division — out to turn the craziest, most unimaginable ideas into reality — ATAP is more grounded. Project leads are given only two years to turn a concept into a finished product. In tech parlance, the ATAP team is called a skunkworks; a group that works with minimal management constraints to develop something quickly.
Its former head, Regina Dugan, has an interesting way of putting it: “We’re a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.” Such as make a phone whose components can be swapped as easily as its back cover, or create software that allows devices to build virtual structures in real space. The division’s newest baby is Project Jacquard, a collaboration with Levi Strauss that turns a normal denim jacket into a touch-sensitive fabric.
The project is inspired by the Jacquard weave, a fabric in which the design is incorporated into the weave instead of being printed on it. In designing these smart jackets, a special conductive thread was used, which is compatible with existing looms. Coupled with a small Bluetooth controller running on a standard watch battery, this connected weave allows the jackets to pair with other gadgets and enable interactivity.
Releasing this spring, the first of these is the Commuter line which was designed for urban cyclists who are always on the move. You can tap, swipe or hold the cuff of the sleeve to answer or block phone calls, access voice-delivered navigation or change music tracks — all of the necessary wizardry coming from a thin flexible strap around the cuff.
Ivan Poupyrev, who heads the Jacquard team at ATAP, says that this interactive fabric is a “platform”, adding that Google would be making the APIs — code packages — that will allow developers to customise the jackets functions. He adds, “Wearables to date have just been able to do one thing, in our case the garment does what you want it to do.” Users have complete control over what their gestures would mean to the jacket; Using an accompanying app, they can essentially program the interface to have preferred functions.
It isn’t just the addition of a few lengths of conductive yarn and touch gestures that make Project Jacquard so exciting. The vision that Google and Levi’s had was to make a jacket that feels like any other, one that was fashionable and durable; a piece of technology that wasn’t “precious”, according to Paul Dillinger, VP of global product innovation at Levi’s.
The weave is durable enough for regular use; you can throw it on a chair when taking it off, or even put it in the washing machine. “The real news is that we’ve made wearables that you can throw in the washing machine, and that still have functional technology afterwards,” explains Dillinger. The only thing one would need to remove is the cuff strap.
The trick that works here, according to Poupyrev, is looking at smart, wearable tech from an apparel maker’s point of view, and not as a “consumer electronics company”. “If we really want to make technology a part of every garment in the world, then we have to empower apparel makers such as Levi’s or any other brand, to be able to manufacture smart garments. It means you have to work with their supply chain.”, he adds. In that sense, the Jacquard jacket is a true wearable, where technology merely supplements the design of the cloth.
Levi’s makes the jacket through its own supply chain, weaving the touch sensors into it like any other, regular jacket, which means it can be easily scaled up for mass production. By 2023, the market for wearables is expected to be $100 billion, and is only expected to grow from there.
Although the Commuter isn’t cheap at $350 (or INR 23,000), it may just change how consumers perceive smart clothing. Poupyrev says, “It’s very natural at this point that new technology becomes another ingredient in building apparel and fashion of the future.” He points to how technology such as nylon has added new functionality to apparel, and hopes that smart clothing becomes as ubiquitous as the zipper on your jacket.