INNOVATION AGENTS I GOOGLE AND LEVI’S
A closer look at how Google and Levi’s met the design
challenges of their smart-jacket collaboration
racing to develop: the internet of things and invisible computing, driven by the idea
that you should be able to access information and services without having to physically interact with a device.
Ivan Poupyrev, technical lead and director of engineering for the Jacquard project,
has been exploring wearable technology for more than two decades. When he launched
Project Jacquard, the public was skeptical of wearables, which “didn’t feel fashionable.
They felt like people with electronics on their bodies,” he says. “To break that tension,
we needed to approach [Project Jacquard] at a mass scale and adapt it to everybody’s
personal taste, desires, and self-image and aspiration. That’s what the fashion and
apparel industry does really well. So that was a starting point: How can we integrate
technology into apparel, but do it in a way that’s native to apparel?” Google partnered
with Levi’s—a globally distributed brand with a large supply chain—to better understand the potential of mass-produced connected garments and how Project Jacquard
could enable interactivity.
Project Jacquard is both a hardware and software platform, so one of the first hurdles
for Poupyrev’s team was creating a conductive thread durable enough to withstand
the manufacturing process. Electronics are generally treated with kid gloves. Textiles,
on the other hand, are meant to endure the kinds of hard knocks that would shatter
a smartphone screen.
“When fabric comes off the loom, we do terrible things to it,” says Paul Dillinger,
vice president of global product innovation at Levi’s and Poupyrev’s partner on Project
Jacquard. The entire surface is exposed to fire to burn off the extra cotton fibers in a
process called singeing. The fabric is then Sanforized, meaning it’s passed through
heated presses and rollers to make the surface even. Next, in a Levi’s-patented process
called pre-skewing, toothed grips latch and torque the fabric to minimize shrinkage
and warpage. Composed of a thin filament made from metal alloy and over-braided
in traditional fibers (cotton, polyester, silk—you name it), the Jacquard thread proved
resilient through all of these hostile circumstances: It can be used exactly like conventional threads.
The second hurdle involved figuring out how the jacket’s wearers would interact
with the Project Jacquard interface—which is stitched onto the sleeve (see “
Cross-Stitching,” right). Borrowing gestures we use on touch screens, Levi’s and Google
arrived at four main motions: brush in,
brush out, tap, or cover the connected
area. The actions are subtle enough so
you can silence an incoming phone call
during a conversation and it just looks
like you’re brushing dust off your sleeve.
In its current iteration, the jacket and
app don’t do much more than what a re-
mote control on a pair of Apple earbuds
can do. (And at $350, it’s double the price
of a Levi’s “analog” denim jacket.) Poupy-
rev sees numerous possibilities. “Think
about the iPhone,” he says, pointing out
that the first-generation model had lim-
ited apps, but later models support thou-
sands. “This is a starting point.”
But will textile interfaces be as much
of a game changer as smartphones?
Voice-based interactions—like talking to
Siri or Alexa—are increasingly the foun-
dation of new technology meant to replace our screens. Poupyrev recognizes this and
says that “both voice and touch will have important places in our future devices. And
Jacquard, as a computing platform for smart apparel, could lead the way.”
Poupyrev and Dillinger hope to roll out more features over time, which may deter-
mine whether the jacket can become the useful tool Google and Levi’s believe it can be.
Meanwhile, Dillinger believes connected tech isn’t the only selling point for Jacquard’s
first product. “First and foremost, it’s a really cute jacket,” he says, “and it also happens
to do these wonderful, surprising, and delightful things.”
Threading the needle
After the team created the
Jacquard thread, they had to
figure out what it would
look like on the Commuter
jacket. First, Google made the
threads white so that users
would be able to see and activate them. But Levi’s didn’t
like the aesthetic. Google then
made a version that blended
entirely with the fabric. Too
invisible. Levi’s suggested a
weaving technique called a
“missed pick,” which creates
a slightly bumpy surface.
“We’re deploying a characteristic of the weaving process
itself to mark the activated
space,” Dillinger says.
To incorporate the thread on
the jacket, the Project Jac-
quard team needed a place
that’s not associated with
any common social cues or
prone to accidental patting.
They landed on the sleeve
since it’s both unobtrusive
and accessible to bicyclists
and other active consumers.
Making the connection
To communicate with a
mobile app via Bluetooth,
the jacket needs to contain
a microprocessor—a piece
of hard electronics. To
achieve that, Google and
Levi’s designed a removable
“button,” called a snap tag,
equipped with both the
processor and a rechargeable battery. It snaps to
the cuff like a cuff link and
must be removed before the
garment is laundered.
WEARABLES “DIDN’T FEEL FASHIONABLE,” SAYS GOOGLE’S IVAN POUPYREV. “THEY FELT LIKE PEOPLE WITH ELECTRONICS ON THEIR BODIES.”