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Weaving the Future of Textiles with Google's Project Jacquard

Sensors woven into textiles and virtual reality wearables, oh my.
June 6, 2015, 1:30pm
Images via Project Jacquard

Smart fabrics and wearable technology, like solar-powered fashion and clothes that let users feel sound, have recently been making some waves in the public consciousness. The technology and coding, however, remains fairly limited to those with the know-how. Project Jacquard, a Google ATAP project, hopes to change this by equipping standard, industrial looms with touch and gestural interactivity.

According to the project website, clothes and furniture will be made into interactive surfaces with special "conductive yarns." Recent smart clothing features hardware and software essentially tacked onto textiles. This can limit where and how the smart technology can be located. Project Jacquard, on the other hand, creates a larger interactive playing field—via sensor grids— with its conductive yarns.

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"Jacquard yarn structures combine thin, metallic alloys with natural and synthetic yarns like cotton, polyester, or silk, making the yarn strong enough to be woven on any industrial loom," the project's site reads. "[They] are indistinguishable from the traditional yarns that are used to produce fabrics today."

The system also features discreet components that are, as described, "no larger than the button on a jacket" and capable of machine learning via algorithms. The interactive yarns can then wirelessly transmit touch and gesture data to mobile devices, connecting the textiles to apps, the Internet, and other electronic features.

Though Project Jacquard bills its interactive yarn as a "blank canvas" for the fashion industry, it could find immediate use in smart athletic wear such as OMsignal, which measures heart rate amongst other data. It could also, like the startup MeU, allow users to broadcast striking visual messages such as traffic or weather updates, if they were so inclined. But Project Jacquard would give designers more flexibility in designing such products, since the interactive surfaces could be activated and then display data anywhere.

But perhaps Jacquard's most interesting (albeit on the horizon) possibility is how it could be used for virtual reality experiences. The team boasts that LEDs and haptics—the virtual creation of touch—can already be embedded in textiles, providing feedback to users and "seamlessly connecting them to the digital world."

Imagine a startup company weaving VR suits that give users more precise gestural control and sensation within a virtual world. Or, perhaps a company creates interactive furniture, where a couch becomes a surreal, haptic-enabled virtual world. In the real world users could be lying on that interactive couch; but in virtual reality they could be floating on an alien ocean produced by a content creator.

Project Jacquard basically suggests as much on its website: "Connected clothes offer new possibilities for interacting with services, devices, and environments," they note. "These interactions can be reconfigured at any time."

But with the good comes the bad. With connected, interactive clothing and furniture will surely come data mining by the companies who create the products. And where there is data mining, there is the potential for surveillance.

With mobile devices, at least users can shut them down or leave them at home. But with interactive clothes and furniture, the Internet grows beyond these limitations, coming to encompass nearly everything. While this technology is undoubtedly cool, there should be a healthy debate as to how much and what kind of data companies will have access to. Otherwise, users will once again be playing catch-up with the private sector and government, who have proven over and over again that they simply cannot slake their thirst for data.

Click here to visit Project Jacquard.

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