I love the music, but usually ignore the technical part of SXSW, but this year a few people reported progress in the Google's Project Jacquard initiative with Levi's. It's an interesting project in a potentially rich area where most have been failing - weaving computation into clothing.
At the beginning of the 19th century Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a powered loom that could manufacture textiles complex patterns. An amalgam of inventions going back nearly a century, the cleverness was a chain of cards. Punched cards laced together forming a sequence of instructions - a program if you will - that instructed the machine how to weave. These sequences could be arbitrarily long. Suddenly brocades and damasks could be made at scale. Jacquard's name became something like Xerox - a company, a machine and a process. Like Xerox the term became generic.
The complexity of patterns could be astonishing. Jacquard was an inspiration to Charles Babbage who commissioned this portrait to be woven in silk on a Jacquard machine. Jacquard is frequently mentioned as one of the earliest bits of computation. An interesting symbol for Google's project.
Mixing local computation and fashion has been a tough area. Most companies have been trying to show off their tech paying little attention to use and practicality. Whatever is done it must be useful at some level, machine washable several hundred times, comfortable, easy to manufacture, inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing to some non-trivial segment. Personal style is important and no one worries about what kind of ARM processor is up their sleeve.
The Google-Levi's collaboration aims to weave touch and gesture into a variety of textiles using modern industrial versions of Jacquard looms. They're currently working with a Japanese firm that does 3x1 denim for Lanvin and Prada. The reports suggest the wires are almost invisible and the material still feels like 3x1 denim. Taps and gestures are sent to a little module that talks to your smartphone via Bluetooth. (it has to be removed for washing) The jacket gives some tactile feedback with a little vibration and it also lights up in different colors. It's a simple input and display.
The first product due out in the Fall is a $350 cycling jacket - a variation of their Trucker Commuter Jacket which currently aims at the twenty something urban cycling market.1 It strikes me as an interesting interface research project (something I've been involved in at times), that is narrowly focused at this time. Software would have to be tailored to a variety of needs - of course that is possible, but to get it right isn't trivial. Reports were that Google's software was incomplete and a bit rough. I have to wonder if augmented reality from something like Apple's AirPods makes more sense for this niche.
It is interesting that the killer app here is the same as what many claim for the smartwatch - fitness. These devices are really only useful as approximations of what your body is doing. The relationship between work and weight is poorly understood and the wrist isn't necessarily the best place to measure work. The measurements can be very useful if it is an encouragement, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt. It's unlikely athletes will take a serious interest at this point.
A more accurate fitness future may be suggested by Leomo's Type-R with it's small network of wearable sensors. I think the future is much richer than just a watch and a phone. A cluster of appropriately located sensors using a local secure network to communicate with your smartphone. A watch may well be part of this cluster.
But that is fitness. Where is fashion - regular clothing - personal style? I've been excited about developments in smart fabrics, both active and passive. There's been little in the way of aesthetics. Functionality will be addressed. This is another post, but imagine if you could keep a person comfortable in a larger thermal envelope. It doesn't make sense to heat and cool very large air spaces if you can keep people comfortable. Comfortable, normal looking clothing that keeps a desk worker comfortable at 17° or 18° C in an office -- or at 28° or 29° C. HVAC bills could be greatly reduced. Local humidity and UV exposure are also being tackled. You can also make functional clothing that helps people with disabilities as well as the infirmities of age. A long list of possibilities exist and the known unknowns and unknown unknowns lists are larger still.
This sort of work cries out for diverse collaborations. Google clearly has the idea by teaming with Levi's, but that's a baby step.2 I'd love to see some universities that are strong in materials get involved with clothing designers, engineers and others - I can think of some folks doing animation I'd like to see involved.
So cheers to the collaboration, but there is an enormous amount of blue sky and a $1.5 -$1.8T apparel market to think about.
And then there's the question of doing it with humanity. The apparel industry has been involved in human right's abuises for at least two centuries.
1 The promotion video
compare with the video for a similar Levi's commuter product that paints a different person -- I don't know if this is by design or if accidental, but a very different message.
2 The folklore is Levi's was not the first choice. Experience in tech/design collaborations tells me they're at least as important as Google in this and possibly more so.