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Why a glowing button might be more important than a touch-sensitive jacket sleeve

This year at Google I/O, its experimental ATAP division had not one, not two, but three mic drop moments. Project Jacquard, Project Soli, and Project Ara — all three are visions of how computers could work in the future. And all three seem like the sort of thing that will never really come to pass. But in two of the three cases, ATAP announced that they’re shipping, damn it, and doing it next year. And in the third (Soli), they’re pushing very hard to ship as well.

Typically, when you see a wild technology idea go from the lab to store shelves, you end up with something quite a bit more pedestrian than the original idea. Concept cars at auto shows blow your hair back, but the actual production vehicles are lame by comparison. Jacquard, Google’s project for touch-sensitive fabric, isn’t entirely an exception. The touch-sensitive part of the jacket that Google is co-creating with Levi’s is only on the left cuff. And to make it work, it requires a little flexible dongle that snaps into the cuff and pairs to your phone via Bluetooth.

“More than a modest premium” on price

That’s not exactly the dream of touch-sensitive, computerized clothing that you can treat like any other piece of clothing. There’s that dongle to charge (it should last two days). There’s the fact that only one part of your clothing is touch sensitive. There’s the fact that the jacket has “more than a modest premium” attached to the price, as Paul Dillinger, VP of global product innovation at Levi’s, puts it. Though he’s quick to point out that “it’s still definitely in the range” of Levi’s other price points, this won’t be the most expensive jacket Levi’s sells.

But it is a solid first step. The work required to both create the flexible weave and then to make sure it could be mass produced is significant. It was just as hard to make it look good instead of looking like a cross-hatch tattoo of wires on your wrist. Close up, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for to even see the tech: “The actual construction is a technical mistake,” Dillinger. “It’s called a missed pick in the weft. The structure of that mistake is actually what created this subtle, or authentic integrated sense for the patch.”

But while all the attention is on the magic of conductive, touch-sensitive area — for Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google’s ATAP, it might be the least interesting part right now. It’s a problem he’s already solved, and he is moving on to the next one and the one after that. He’s paying attention to that little Bluetooth dongle that powers Jacquard. He’s thinking a lot about buttons.

Pay attention to that button

The button is “a central point of thinking,” says Poupyrev. “That feels, to us, right. The device button on the jacket feels like the real thing.” Someday, we’ll continue shrinking down electronics so they can fit inside those buttons, and when that happens, companies like Levi’s won’t be limited to just making jackets.

“In the future, every [kind of garment can have] our technology woven in, and technologies added,” Poupyrev says. “You can use it for other applications. Business wear, athletic wear … we’re looking very carefully at enterprise.”

ATAP and Levi’s worked together to craft the gestures that will work on the trucker jacket and the partners who can create apps that work with it. (ATAP isn’t ready to just open it up to any developer yet — something of a common theme this year at Google I/O.) There will be eight or so gestures, all simple and designed to be easy to remember while you’re riding a bike around the city.

Somebody, you won’t even need the phone

And then there’s that button. It lights up, sure, and that tiny little LED light looms larger in Poupyrev’s mind than you might expect. That’s because those lights are a signal — not that there’s an incoming message, but that there’s an incoming future — one where computers like the one in your pocket aren’t going to be necessary anymore.

“I think in the future, it’s going to come directly to the cloud, and you won’t need the phone,” Poupyrev says. To him, Jacquard isn’t just about creating a remote control for your phone. That’s a necessary half step, but it’s not the final goal of creating ubiquitous computing. And so he’s already working to minimize the phone’s presence in your interactions with Jacquard: “We’re talking about instead of using the phone, just using the phone as a connection directly to the services on the cloud services.”

Dillinger puts it a little less technically: “Step one, put your phone away and get your face out of your screen. Step two, get rid of the phone. We’ve got time.”


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