Ivan Poupyrev, Google's technical program lead, received wild applause at a morning session at Google I/O today when he talked about Project Jacquard.
The project isn't about a new smartphone or tablet or even a giant humanoid robot. It's about smart textiles that could change the way we connect and communicate with our environment and devices. They can also track health and physical activity. (Yes, your pants will know if you're sitting on the couch instead of doing power squats.)
The effort might seem odd for a global online search giant, but Google is also deeply involved in emerging technology like self-driving cars, robotics and high-flying balloons that can offer Internet access in remote regions.
Now it's looking to move beyond smartphones and even smart watches. Why not control a device by swiping a hand down your shirt sleeve or rubbing your fingers together over your jacket or pants Why not have socks that track your heart rate and the number of miles you've run
With those possibilities in mind, Google announced today that it has partnered with Levi Strauss & Co. to create smart clothing.
"If we can get people to sit and talk face-to-face, instead of having their face looking down at their mobile phone, that's delivering value," Paul Dillinger, vice president of innovation for the Levi's brand, told a roomful of developers at Google I/O this morning. "This is something we want to get behind. Now, my friends, you are all fashion designers along with us. It's going to be fast and fun, and we want you to come on with us."
Poupyrev began by talking about Project Soli, which uses a small radar sensor to track hand gestures. Instead of controlling a smart watch or a smart phone by swiping your fingers across its screen, you can simply make a swiping motion in the air and the device will respond as if you'd touched it.
"Your hand can becomes a variety of controls - a scroller, a slider or anything else," said Poupyrev. "Your hand can be a complete, self-contained control. Your hand can be an interface. It can be the only interface device you ever need for your wearables."
Google took what it learned from Project Soli and radar sensors and moved on to Project Jacquard, which relies on sensors built into the yarn or other fibers used to create smart clothing.
"If you can replace some of the yarns in the textile with conductive yarns, you can weave multi-touch controls," said Poupyrev. "You can weave interactive devices. If you make garments out of textiles, you would not call it a wearable, you would call it a jacket. We want to move beyond novelty. We want it to scale so everybody can make them and everybody can buy them."
The sensor fibers are indistinguishable to the human eye from regular fibers and have built-in connectivity. That allows for access to a network as well as other devices, Poupyrev said.
To show off the technology, he brought out a piece of cloth. As he waved his hand over it or made a swiping motion, a screen nearby showed the sensors reacting to the motion.
"We don't expect these textiles to replace everything," said Poupyrev. "But if you can use broad gestures of your hands to control something, you have such broad control."
He noted that Google engineers took their smart fabric to tailors on London's well-known Savile Row, where it was made into a nice-looking smart jacket.
Poupyrev showed how, with a swipe of his hand over the sleeve, he could control his phone -- and even make a call.
The jacket, Google noted, is 85% cotton and 15% Project Jacquard material.