Most wearable devices are passive. They read data, then spit it back out at you with a buzz on your wrist, or—if they’re really good—via an app that can actually interpret what that data means. But aside from a few simple controls for music or answering a connected phone, wearables have yet to truly make the leap from absorbing data to providing meaningful ways for users to control the world around them.
That problem is especially pronounced for wearables made of fabric rather than plastic, says Nick Langston, head of the Wearables Lab at TE Connectivity.
“Today, what’s been going on in smart garments is sort of passive from the consumer’s perspective,” says Langston, whose company has partnered with Google on its Project Jacquard smart-textiles initiative, which was first unveiled at I/O in May. “That is, your garments are going to have intelligence that’s going to be reading information about you, whether it’s your motion or your heart rate or your breathing or your temperature, it’s just going to be taking information from you in a passive way, where you don’t really have to engage it.”
Jacquard looks to change that paradigm, however. Langston says Ivan Poupyrev, the project’s technical program lead, has a unique vision for how smart textiles can not only catch up to the rest of the wearable world, but possibly even outpace it:
What’s really fascinating about Project Jacquard, where Ivan really has vision, he’s the first guy to attack this and say the clothing itself ought to be an interactive thing. It ought to provide us an opportunity to interact with devices around us. That’s the breakthrough that Project Jacquard is really talking about—now, instead of just passive data collection, your clothing is an opportunity for you to interact with devices. And to a large extent, this approach is just brand new.
How TE Connectivity Fits
According to Langston, Google approached TE in the summer of 2014 to help them “integrate the electronics into the fabric environment.”
“We’re a company that makes connectors,” he says. While he can’t go into too much detail without violating nondisclosure agreements, Langston explains that “what we’ve delivered to Google is a process and tools that make it possible for a normal garment manufacturer to integrate the technology in Jacquard.
“Garment factories are not at all like contract manufacturers,” he continues. “They’re not going to solder anything. They want to use heat presses, they want to use laser cutters, they want to use the traditional tools they have, not soldering irons or clean rooms.”
The challenge for TE, he says, was in reinventing the connector itself.
“One of the biggest barriers to adoption in this space is big clumsy connectors we have to use to get sensing from the garment to the electronics that are going to process this sense data,” says Langston. “Our mission is to figure out, okay, how do we make a thin, flexible, washable, and almost invisible connection point between these two things? For us, as a connector company that likes to try to innovate, that’s such a beautiful problem to have.”
With the help of TE’s new connectors, Jacquard’s smart-textile platform has implications beyond simply having music player controls embedded in a jacket sleeve.
“We’re really trying to solve the problem between going from a hard environment like electronics to a soft environment, and that soft environment here, we’re talking about clothing,” he says. “But it could be your sofa, it could be in your bedding, it could be in your curtains, it could be in your car seats. That hard to soft connection is really one of the fundamental problems that this market presents us with, and it’s an exciting one to try and solve.”
Sewing Up The Market
In addition to TE Connectivity, Google has also partnered with Levi’s for a line of smart-textile empowered products, the specifics of which are still under wraps. Langston couldn’t shed any more light on what kinds of super jeans we might get out of that deal, but it’s entirely possible that Levi’s is merely the first in a slew of new Google-powered pants products.
“I can tell you we talked to almost all of the major apparel brands,” he said.
While it’ll be interesting to see what Google and clothing manufacturers come up with through Jacquard, the real magic might happen when hackers and developers pick up a needle and thread to start figuring out their own smart-textile projects.
The possibilities for makers to take advantage of all Jacquard seems to offer might truly be endless. While making a new device or gadget requires the use of relatively expensive materials and processes, creating a new piece of clothing or a product made of fabric is the kind of thing you can do at home. It may not be long before hackers start to join their grandmothers when they stay home to knit all day.
“What is exciting to think about is what the developer community is going to come up with for this,” says Langston. “When you put it out to the entire community and you crowd-source new uses for this interface, that’s when it gets very exciting.
Project Jacquard images courtesy of Google