Hands-on: Google's Project Jacquard plans to turn your jacket into a trackpad

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I never imagined that I would ever use my shirt to control my smartphone—or anything else, really—but apparently that’s in my future.

This morning, Google’s ATAP division announced the full details of Project Jacquard. It’s one of Google’s many wild and crazy experiments, and it involves weaving multitouch textile sensors into regular clothing to turn, say, a boring sleeve into a trackpad of sorts. The material can be woven and braided into many types of fabric, including silk, wool, and even some synthetic fibers.

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The beginnings of conductive thread.

“It’s very comfortable,” said Ivan Poupyrev, Technical Program Lead at Google’s ATAP. He conducted the Project Jacquard presentation while wearing a white, corduroy-like jacket on stage with the technology embedded within a patch on his left arm.

I asked him if he was sweaty. “It’s just like a normal jacket,” he replied. Maybe that was too personal.

I was curious about the implementation of the technology, so I tried out Project Jacquard for myself. I didn’t get to wear anything, but there were demonstration tables with various examples of what the fabric could do out in the wild.

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Google’e ATAP division laid out demonstration tables for Project Jacquard.

Project Jacquard works just like the trackpad on my MacBook Air. I can swipe across, and it’ll register that action. I can hover above it, and it knows I’m about to touch it—or at least I think it does.

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Is this working at all? 

There were monitors showing how exactly the fabric registered my motions, but I had no idea what I was doing. Was I swiping up or down? Did I mean to do what I just did? I then tried changing the color of several Phillips Hue lightbulbs at another table. I had no idea what I was doing there, either, except that every time I touched the fabric, the bulbs changed color.

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I later asked an innocent bystander to be my test subject.

“It’s not the same accuracy as capacitive sensors,” said Carsten Schwesig, design lead on Project Jacquard. “If you imagine, in clothing, [this experiment] lends itself to broad gestures that work from the human perspective and the sensor perspective. Assuming it was on the arm, you’d kind of tap and swipe.” I did that, but maybe I wasn’t doing it the right way.

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The “trackpad” part of the capacative fabric. Note that on the jacket, it’s barely obvious that it’s touchable.

I later learned that Schwesig has a background in interaction design. He’s been tapping into that knowledge to determine how this kind of technology could be implemented. There are plenty of use cases that expand beyond the clothes on your back. “[It can be used in] any scenario where woven textiles are used, really,” said Schwesig. “Car interiors are an area we’re thinking about… I talked to someone who used it in medical equipment. Clothing is by no means [Project Jacquard’s] only application.”

Google still has a ton of logistics to work out before the fabric is ready for primetime. For instance, there’s the issue of how it stays powered, which varies by the context it’s used in. “In the case of the clothing, we expect it to powered by battery,” said Schwesig, though he added that conductive fabric is so low powered, it could last for days on a single charge.

A bystander asked whether the fabric could last a year. Schwesig quickly retorted, “It probably won’t last a year…I can’t give you any specific number. A year is probably too much. But in the longer term, there’s also textile-based energy harvesting techniques and so on, where this thing could be self sufficient. It doesn’t need very much power.”

Project Jacquard isn’t heading to a jacket near you any time soon. It seems the announcement of the partnership with Levi’s is more of a formality—a way for Google to announce its intention to evolve the technology a bit further before actually bringing it to market. “From a fashion designer’s perspective and wearer’s perspective, we want this to be as flexible as the stuff you already wear,” said Schwesig. “As opposed to electronics, which have a very fixed form factor and very fixed functionality.”

I asked Poupyrev what happens if he gets a stain on his jacket. He replied, “Just wash it normally. Dry clean is fine.”

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