Google unites textiles and technology in its Jacquard project 


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2017)

Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP), which focusses on researching future technologies, is currently transforming textiles into interactive surfaces. Here, new weaving techniques are being developed that permit sensors and electro-conductive yarns to be integrated into fabrics.

At the annual Google I/O developer conference, ‘Jacquard’ was probably one of the most observed projects of all. At the event, Google’s in-house ATAP research division presented the first prototypes of the intelligent apparel, which were developed in collaboration with Asian textiles specialists. The project name is a reference to Joseph-Maria Jacquard, the inventor of the first punch card-controlled loom. The aim is to integrate textiles that include sensors into the everyday lives of users: with the objective, for example, of allowing users to make or receive telephone calls by swiping their sleeves without the need to remove their mobile phones from their pockets. And controlling media players and lamps is supposedly already possible. Furthermore, the makers promise that the fabric can now also recognise two-finger gestures. For this purpose, various forms of touch-sensitive surfaces are currently being tested – on the basis of electro-conductive yarns, for instance. Jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss is already on board as a cooperation partner. Together, the two companies are planning to market the first mass-use products in the near future. 

Here, the ATAP researchers face several challenges: on the one hand, the electronics need to be miniaturised, the threads and small communication chips used must not only survive their integration into the fabrics undamaged, but the interwoven technology must also be constantly supplied with power. According to the manufacturers, the smart textiles are even machine-washable. This, however, requires the prior removal of the Bluetooth stick – although the other technology in the jacket can cope with the washing process without any problems. In the future, Google is also planning to manufacture further items of apparel and is currently canvassing other industrial partners. This should not be difficult in view of the fact that Jacquard unites several trend topics: wearables, fashion tech and Internet of Things (IoT) technology. 

With these, touch-sensitive threads could – thanks to Jacquard – for the first time quite literally be seamlessly integrated into the production processes of textile manufacturers. The printed circuit boards that serve as interfaces to the terminal devices are meanwhile the size of a button, which makes the technology in the fabric virtually invisible. In addition to smart apparel (for tracking muscle movements and emotions, for example), many future applications are conceivable: among others, home textiles or vehicle seats, which can – using pressure sensors – automatically identify how many passengers are in the vehicle at any given time. And carpets that gather visitor densities or movement data are also among the conceivable applications. 

Because the fabrics have to be extremely robust, cotton is particularly suitable as the carrier for the conductor threads. Theoretically, the sensors could also be easily integrated into polyester or silk fabrics. This opens up completely new possibilities for the ‘wearable-tech’ sector in the future, as fitness monitors and smart watches have been attributed more to the technology segment to date than to the clothing industry. By contrast, the stretchable and malleable Jacquard fabrics are far more flexible – both in terms of their handling and their appearance. In conjunction with machine learning and big data applications, they could revolutionise the topic of ‘human-computer interaction’ in the long term. 

The primary players in this newly created segment are therefore both hardware and textiles manufacturers and the suppliers of major data platforms. Equally, this is also an important topic for the entertainment industry. For these reasons, it seems quite probable that we will be seeing more interdisciplinary collaboration in the future – such as the one between Google and Levi’s. And sustainable textiles, among other things, harbour considerable further potential. Adidas – with the ‘Adidas X Parley’ – is already manufacturing shoes made from recycled ocean-borne plastic, whose upper material and intermediate soles are made from plastic waste and illegal deep-sea nets using 3-D printing technology. Other suppliers and projects are focussing on cultivating micro-bacteria with the aim of creating innovative and smart fabrics. 

The fact that the competition is anything but sleeping is also demonstrated by such products as the O’Neill NavJacket, which features a remote-control keypad and a GPS unit integrated into the sleeve, with which skiers and snowboarders can track their routes, search for restaurants or simply listen to music. Or the ‘Vital Jacket’ ECG shirt manufactured by Biodevices, developed especially for power athletes and body-builders and heart patient diagnostics. Further examples and areas of application are showcased by such inventions as the Bluetooth-enabled textile keyboard by Swedish manufacturer Eleksen, which weighs just a few grams, and the ZegnaSport ‘Ecotech’ solar jacket, which generates warmth by absorbing sunlight. And BMW is actually cladding entire cars with smart textiles: the ‘Gina’ concept car prototype has a body comprising smart, flexible fabric that adapts to the respective driving speed with the aim of achieving the ideal aerodynamics. 

These are without exception all creative ventures that could also be commercially profitable for the pioneers of the sector around Google and Levi’s. The US market research company Gartner Research estimates that the wearable tech market is currently worth US$ 28 billion. And, according to Forbes, this could rise to as much as US$ 34 billion by 2020. Among other things, the growth rates are the result of the fact that smart products have gradually also emerged within the consumer markets. Technologies in use in the medical sector and the military for many years now, and embraced by the first consumers a few years ago in the form of smart glasses and fitness trackers, could now quite conceivably – further-developed and in a more flexible, more textile rendition – create a profitable mass market.

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Picture credit © Levi's® Commuter x Jacquard by Google


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