If you want to understand a key piece of Google’s vision for the future of the fashion, furniture, and automotive industries, look no further than Lady Gaga. Specifically, at a dress she wore to a 2013 iTunes Festival in London. Her ensemble, made by design firm Studio XO, included a 3D-printed mechanism that blew bubbles as she walked. There was so much machinery inside the dress that she needed two assistants to help her stay upright.
When Ivan Poupyrev sees Gaga’s insane dress, he has an odd reaction. He thinks man, it would be great if tech like this could be built into more stuff. Poupyrev is a technical program lead inside Google’s ATAP division, the top-secret lab run by former DARPA director Regina Dugan that is responsible for some of Google’s most insane and ambitious ideas. One of the most ambitious ideas to date: smart pants.
Ivan Poupyrev, ATAP Technical Project Lead. Peter McCollough for WIREDOK, technically Poupyrev’s idea is called Project Jacquard. (The name comes from a classic style of intricate machine weaving.) It aims to bring conductive yarns to every garment and fabric on earth, and then to integrate touch sensors, haptic feedback, and more right into your jeans, car seats, curtains, everything. “If you can weave the sensor into the textile, as a material,” Poupyrev says, “you’re moving away from the electronics. You’re making the basic materials of the world around us interactive.”
Conductive fabric is nothing new, but conductive fabric at scale is. And the Jacquard team created a way to produce this conductive yarn with the same looms and machinery the textiles industry already uses. They also figured out how to integrate tiny electronics into textiles, which Poupyrev hopes will soon live inside every item of clothing you buy. Google is working on an ecosystem of apps and services that will let you interact with your phone and other gadgets just by grabbing, tapping, swiping, and touching your clothes.
Frankly, Poupyrev says, it’s ridiculous that our clothes don’t already talk to our tech. “Any time you put your phone into your pocket,” he says, “you have a smart jacket… the only problem is they don’t talk to each other. There’s no connection between them. So this work, we can actually kind of close the circuit.” He starts imagining what that means out loud: What if your phone knew you were getting dressed up, and called an Uber as soon as you finished knotting your bowtie? What if it could automatically track your exercise as soon as you put on your running shoes? What if you could talk to your phone with a single, discreet swipe on your arm? What if it could talk back?
Learning to Weave
When he joined ATAP in January of 2014, Poupyrev knew little about the fashion industry. His real fascination is with the ways we interact with the world around us. Before joining Google, he was the principal research scientist in the Imagineering division at Disney. One of his projects turned materials like water and flowers into touch surfaces; another, called Revel, added haptic feedback to things like chairs and umbrellas. He even built a system called Aireal, which literally made objects out of thin air.
Peter McCollough for WIREDNearly everything he’d worked on was a prototype: half academic exercise, half futuristic concept. Even at Sony, where he worked in a research lab, he struggled to turn turn ideas into products. ATAP doesn’t work that way, though. When you start a project, you finish it. You’re expected to turn it into a money-maker or move on to something else.
Any time you put your phone into your pocket, you have a smart jacket… the only problem is they don't talk to each other. Ivan Poupyrev
Fortunately, Poupyrev had long been thinking about textiles—sort of. The structure of touchscreens, with their big grids of electrodes, detecting currents formed and broken as our fingers move, have always reminded him of textiles. It occurred to him that, unlike placing a lot of electrodes on glass surfaces, making textiles—fabric, cloth, yarns, whatever—is kind of easy. If he could replace just a few of those yarns with something conductive, he could make a touch sensor that could go absolutely anywhere. “It’s a complete shift from making electronics and attaching them to things,” he says, “to actually creating materials which are interactive by their definition. And I thought that was really powerful.”
As he explains the origins of Jacquard, inside the Levis’ Eureka Innovation Lab in San Francisco, it’s clear the fashion industry has rubbed off. He’s wearing a white dress shirt underneath a dark suit jacket that has a huge pair of white scissors embroidered on the front, along with the word CUT. (His boss, Dugan, finds this jacket hilarious.) He’s wearing an Omega Speedmaster, the model of watch that Neil Armstrong wore to the moon. His hair is in a messy sweep off to the right of his face, bouncing around his forehead as he moves. Which is constantly. He can hardly stay seated for more than a few minutes; his hands fly around while he talks about tailoring and weaving.
Peter McCollough for WIRED“As technologists, we don’t really notice—we buy ready-made clothes, and we figure it was always like this,” he says. “You can see the incredible amount of craft being used to create all these pieces,” he says, over a video of a tailor and his apprentice carefully measuring and cutting the sleeves of a jacket he made with Saville Row. He can hardly contain his amazement at the human craft that goes into making it. He’s got that same jacket on a table in front of him, and he can’t stop touching it as he talks, swiping up and down on its left forearm. There’s an invisible touch sensor inside, connected to tiny electronics hidden just underneath the right lapel. It’s programmed to initiate a phone call.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
The remarkable thing about Project Jacquard isn’t its conductive fabrics. That’s been done. It’s not even difficult, really. What Poupyrev and his team have really been working on is how to bring this to a global manufacturing process that hasn’t changed much in the last two centuries. Jacquard will only work if it can integrate into the looms, the materials, and the processes used by the thousands of retailers, designers, and factories around the world. “We wanted to do something that could scale to all of them,” Poupyrev says.
Peter McCollough for WIREDThat meant hitting production floors. “Basically I was told, you have two places to go: Italy or Japan,” he says. “Nothing else.” He picked Japan, where he’d lived for 15 years previously. He spent time learning how yarns are made, trying to figure out how to work conductive materials into the brutal manufacturing and testing processes. “They burn them on the open fire to get rid of excessive yarn filaments sticking out,” he says, shaking his head at the brutality of it. “I wasn’t aware that these things were happening, and that was just one of them. The stretching, the pulling, the putting in the water, on the hot press, the pressing. On some textiles they have the metal claws pulling them apart! It’s kind of destructive for electronics.”
Working with one of Japan’s many boutique textile manufacturers, Poupyrev and the Jacquard team designed yarns based on a metallic alloy whose precise makeup he won’t share. Just about anything can be woven around that conductive core, using a super-strong braiding process. The same process can make everything from denim to silk to polyester to wool, all equally conductive. The yarn comes in thousands of colors, and looks and feels exactly the same as any other.
Poupyrev is a self-effacing technologist, poking fun at T-shirt-wearing Silicon Valley engineers, but he still thinks like a Googler
Next came the hard part: learning how to integrate these textiles into existing garments and processes. They discovered that by tightly weaving the conductive thread into other fabrics, they were having a hard time connecting the electronics necessary to power and capture data from the yarn. So after a few revisions, they created a two-layer system that allows you to embed electronics in the middle, like the meat in a sandwich. That makes it easy to connect electronics to the connective threads themselves, without getting in the way of what the designers want to do. “We’re going to take over the fashion industry, but from the back,” Poupyrev says. Literally and figuratively.
Peter McCollough for WIREDGoogle’s not interested in getting into the garment business, Poupyrev says over and over. “You need to provide your solution to hundreds of brands at some point,” he says. “I don’t want to become a textile mogul. I don’t want to own factories everywhere. There are enough factories already. We just want to use those capacities right there.”
Poupyrev doesn’t want Google to make clothes, or the tiny electronics inside, but he does want to make the software that controls them. He’s planning to offer apps and APIs so that developers and customers can pick their clothes’ functionality the same way they pick cut and color. It’s an entire rethinking of “wearables.”
Touchy Feely Everything
For the record, it’s impossible to make a textile-based touch sensor as precise as your phone. “When they’re making a capacitive touch panel in the factory,” Poupyrev says, “they’re usually using magnetrons. Something like that, crazy stuff.” The goal, then, was to make Jacquard’s yarn good enough to recognize certain gestures. That way, he says, “we can infer intention from the signal” and still reliably do what you want.
People don't want to glow like a Christmas tree
“In the future—or maybe not in the future—wearables should not be thought of as another consumer device,” Poupyrev says. “We already have clothes, we already have garments.” Why do you need a wristband to measure your steps or heartbeat, when your shoes or shirt could do it more accurately? Why do you need a watch to deliver haptic feedback, when a slight buzz on your shirt cuff would be even more discreet? “Everything other wearables do,” Poupyrev says, “we’ll do it. It’s not difficult. But it’s going to be much more than that.”
Paul Dillinger, VP of Innovation at Levi’s. Peter McCollough for WIREDAt least on a prototype level, it works. Poupyrev showed me more than a dozen different kinds of fabric—silk, polyester, denim. In each, he pointed out the touch-sensitive areas. Some were large and visible, some were small and perfectly integrated into the garment.
Poupyrev is a self-effacing technologist, poking fun at T-shirt-wearing Silicon Valley engineers, but he still thinks like a Googler. He’s a conqueror, a man who looks at an extremely mature 200-year-old industry and sees huge neon signs that say “RIPE FOR DISRUPTION.” But the fashion industry is huge, massively powerful economically, and extremely diffuse—there is no equivalent to Apple or Google, no single company that can drag the industry into new eras by sheer force of economic and social will. The fate of Project Jacquard will rest on Google’s ability to convince not one partner, but many.
ATAP’s first partner in the project is Levi’s, maker of all-American jeans and trucker jackets. Poupyrev worked closely with Levi’s VP of Innovation Paul Dillinger, a designer by trade who says even now he’s nervous about getting this right. But he sees in Google a willing partner, not a would-be overlord; he mentioned a couple of times how impressed he was that Google was willing to shape its processes to the particular needs of Levi’s denim. Poupyrev, in turn, has learned to deflect all questions of fashion and design over to Dillinger.
Poupyrev laughs at his own desires to put full-size LCDs on his sleeves, before wistfully talking about working with someone who’s interested in helping him do exactly that. But he catches himself. “If you’re serious about it, you know people don’t want to glow like a Christmas tree,” he says. “This is not a technology problem. Adding a full wearable LCD thing on your wrist, that’s easy. It’s really a design problem. Design, and cultural understanding.”
Ivan Poupyrev, ATAP Technical Project Lead. Peter McCollough for WIREDEven the first partnership was a tenuous one. After the Levi’s team first met with the Jacquard crew in Mountain View, they spent two hours sitting in traffic on the way back to San Francisco coming up with all the reasons it wouldn’t work. The supply chain is too complicated, too diffuse; there are too many tests and processes for the materials; it might just suck for consumers. “On spec,” Dillinger says, “I’m hugely skeptical of wearables.” Even now, he says, Levi’s is still trying to figure out the right application for the tech.
Dillinger loves the potential, though. “We realized that even though we live in the physical world, we’re becoming ever more reliant on the digital world. And that reliance is creating this situation of like, phone to face.” As he says this, he lifts his hand up, covering his bearded face and gray beanie. He likens it to the steering wheel in the car, how great it was when manufacturers moved things like music playback and volume control off the dashboard and right under your fingers. Safer, easier, just better.
Jeans are just the beginning of Project Jacquard. The plan—to turn everything from your clothes to your chairs into interactive devices—is as much a moonshot as self-driving cars and diabetes-managing contact lenses. But if Google can integrate itself as a partner in the fashion industry, not a competitor or tech company that wants to slap touchscreens on a coat, Jacquard could be the core of a new kind of connected clothing. One that doesn’t have weird pockets for sensors, that looks exactly like a great pair of jeans always has.
You’d wear those, right?
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