Wearables are all the rage and Google spent a good chunk of its developer conference keynote discussing how to connect more devices on your body. Its latest wearable venture, a project of its Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) team, brings connectivity to something most people wear every day.
Project Jacquard makes it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms. With Jacquard, Google developed a way to weave conductive yarns into existing materials and patterns, then connect those threads to a microcontroller to create capacitive sensors that respond to broad gestures.
“There’s a similarity between multi-touch panels and textiles. If we replace the panels with conductive yarns, we can weave multi-touch textile sensors. We can weave interactive devices,” ATAP Team Lead Ivan Poupyrev told conference attendees.
Google demonstrated several use cases for smart fabrics in which users touched small woven squares to turn on lights and play music on a phone. Although Jacquard wasn’t designed with a particular use case in mind, Google’s ATAP team partnered with San Francisco-based Levi Strauss to develop smart fabrics on a large scale.
“When I decided to become a fashion designer at 12, this wasn’t the company I thought I’d be playing with,” Paul Dillinger, head of product innovation at Levi’s, said at Google I/O, adding that he hopes Levi’s can “facilitate access to the best and most necessary of this digital world while maintaining eye contact with the people we eat dinner with.”
Poupyrev envisioned Jacquard as being one of many standard materials in a designer’s tool kit, a donned a white coat with Jacquard threads during the I/O keynote. Although Google and Levi’s haven’t announced a product, the collaboration is a big step forward in smart fabric manufacturing.
“We’re trying to scale this to multiple clothes and brands, and have to think about making textiles at [the level of the] global garment industry, which makes 19 billion garments a year,” Poupyrev said. “We had to invent many capabilities as we went along.”
Google developed its own yarns—conductive metallic alloys braided with silk fibers—that feel like regular yarn but provide 0.1 ohm resistance against difficult industrial processes. The yarns also come in a variety of colors (where, previously, conductive yarn only came in grey) to make Jacquard more enticing to a discerning eye.
The resulting diversity of fabrics and patterns that can withstand mass production might be the largest development in smart fabrics, which have hereto been relegated to demo floors and tracking mechanisms inside clothing. Google has also partnered with clothing and electronics manufacturers in Japan to, potentially, create a massive system of monetary and industrial muscle.
There’s no solid roadmap for Project Jacquard and no specific plans to develop energy harvesting to power the electronics or to add additional sensors. Poupyrev said he doesn’t expect smart textiles to replace touch screens, but hopes Jacquard will be thought of as “a raw material, part of the language apparel and fashion designers speak.”