Google's Project Jacquard Gets It Right

Bloomberg View , May 31, 2015

At last a technology company has grasped the essential difference between wearable and portable, between clothing and accessories, between artifice that seems like second nature and artifice that seems like a clunky cyborg upgrade. Surprisingly, that company is the same behemoth (though a different team) that peddled the aggressively unnatural Google Glass.

At last week’s developers’ conference, Google Inc.’s Advanced Technology and Projects group announced what it calls Project Jacquard, named for the early 19th-century looms that first used digital punchcards to program complex patterns. The project’s central innovation is a conductive yarn tough enough for industrial weaving and mass-market apparel and upholstery production. The threads can connect to chips that react to gestures, monitor heart rate or body temperature, or do whatever else a designer might come up with. Google hasn’t talked publicly about pricing, but it’s definitely going for scale. Its first design partner is Levi Strauss & Co.

Unlike existing conductive threads, Project Jacquard’s yarn works with many different fibers -- wool, silk, polyester, cotton -- and comes in a full range of colors. The regular fibers braid around a conductive metal alloy core. “It looks like just normal yarn,” said Shiho Fukuhara, the project’s textile development and partnership lead, in a video. “The only thing that’s different is it’s conductive.”

The goal is to allow electronics to disappear into the fabric of daily life, “getting the technology out of the way and making interactions more natural and more seamless,” explained João Wilbert, the creative technologist for Google Creative Lab in London, in the video.

Metaphors like “fabric of daily life” and “seamless” demonstrate why this approach is so promising. Textile references are woven into our language because cloth is integral to human life. It’s our second skin. Not everyone wears jewelry, but in many climates human beings can’t survive without clothes. So if you want to develop wearable electronics, threads and buttons are a much more powerful way to go than bracelets, watches, or weirdly asymmetrical eyewear.

But the big question still remains: What is this stuff for?

Google’s publicity video and developers’ conference display portrayed smart clothes as a new kind of touch screen that you can stroke to activate a cell phone, select music, or turn on lights. The analogy led to jokes about inadvertent contact. “It’s probably bad news for people who like to wipe their hands dry on their pants,” wrote Fortune’s Stacey Higginbotham. Beware of bumping into strangers.

In an interview with Wired’s David Pierce, Project Jacquard head Ivan Poupyrev acknowledged that the real challenges aren’t technological. They lie in figuring out what people want. “It’s really a design problem,” he said. “Design, and cultural understanding.” Poupyrev emphasized that the company doesn’t plan to get into the clothing business. Aside from the yarn, it will offer software and services that others can use to develop specific products.

Opening up the technology to all sorts of designers, with all sorts of ideas, lessens the danger of getting stuck on the sleeve-as-touch-screen idea. I can imagine several alternatives myself. Speaking of bumping into strangers reminds me of the Florentine pickpocket who lifted my new iPhone. How about pockets that detect unauthorized intruders and sound an alarm or vibrate some other part of your garments? (Such smart pockets could be sewn into handbags as well as clothing.)

I’d also like a bra that reminds me to keep my shoulders back, correcting the rounded pose brought on by too many hours on the laptop. In my one purchase of wearable tech, I tried the Lumo Lift. It’s a sensor that’s supposed to vibrate to coach your posture; it also connects to a smartphone app. At least for me, the Lift didn’t work at all. It was too large, too loose, and, even attached to my bra strap, not close enough to my body to accurately detect its position. Fabric, by contrast, can get intimate.

And don’t forget that textiles include blankets, curtains, sofa cushions, and automobile seats. Fabric isn’t just wearable. It’s everywhere. If Google is smart, and it generally is, Project Jacquard will quickly enlist a partner that can apply the technology to furnishings rather than apparel. How about a TV remote woven into the arm of your sofa?

To reverse Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim, fabric is a technology so familiar that it is indistinguishable from nature. Embed it with intelligence and you get something that looks a lot like magic.

  1. ATAP is not to be confused with the Google X “moon shot” research lab behind Glass and self-driving cars. ATAP works on technologies with nearer-term commercial prospects.