We've been in the midst of a massive wave of high-profile tech announcements recently — but with all the tech hub-bub going on, you may have missed the news that Google is developing a new smart fabric. Smart fabric? Come again? Yes, Google officially announced the development of Project Jacquard, a collaborative venture with Levi's Jeans that will produce a special fabric that interacts directly with devices, including smart phones.
If you're unimpressed by this development — "yeah, whatever, we already have smart clothes" — well, you're quite jaded, aren't you? You're also half right. We've had smart fabrics before, but not like this. The currently available smart fabrics are each focused on one specific quality, like fitness monitoring. But Google's new fabric will potentially make any item of clothing into a touch screen, using "conductive yarns" to weave connectivity into the fabric itself.
And if you're worried that it's going to look clunky, Google has even better news: Project Jacquard fibers "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." Meaning they will be practically invisible.
So Google have basically reinvented thread. That's how game-changing this is. But what does fabric with touch interactivity actually mean? And how will making our pants into a touchscreen improve our lives?
Here's how Project Jacquard could change your wardrobe – and thoroughly propel our lives into the realm of science fiction.
Why Touchscreen Jeans Are Awesome
We're seeing more and more of our most important technology get folded into our ordinary items every day — smart jewelry is just one current example of how the trend is developing. But Project Jacquard is an entirely new frontier. If technology is literally inside our clothing, it's not only hidden — and therefore theoretically harder to steal — it's capable of impacting our lives and choices in interesting new ways. If you can bring up news websites on a screen, order a croissant delivery and
switch on the coffee machine, all by simply touching a part of your
pajamas, who knows how it will impact your day? Maybe we'll have more free time. Maybe we'll become better organized. Maybe we'll order more croissants.
Smart fabric could also help keep vulnerable people safe. Imagine being able to let friends that you're being followed, call the police, or make you location known to people you trust, just by tapping a known-only-to-you sequence on your knee. And touch screens that detect impact from punches or other physical abuse could serve as evidence in court.
Sexy interpretations of this sort of tech have already been explored elsewhere. Durex developed the smart underwear "Fundawear" for long-distance lovers, where partners could use sensors controlled by an iPhone app to, ah, stimulate each other. Project Jacquard seems mostly focused on linking wearers to the outside works at the moment, but in time, who knows — you may be able to use it to give a person across the room the sensation of a peck (or more).
Google are also, sensibly, taking a back seat on what Project Jacquard clothes will actually do — basically, they are giving fashion designers access to the threads and their capabilities (for a price, of course), and allowing them to run riot. The clothes that actually show us what Project Jacquard can do won't come from Google; they'll likely come from Balmain, Christopher Kane or other high-end, youth-focused fashion houses who could make use of the potential.
Why We Might Still Be Waiting A While For This
Ready to go out right now and buy a bra that will let you check your email? Hold your horses. Project Jacquard still doesn't have an on-sale date. But while it's still at the basic manufacturing stage, Google's fabric might eliminate one of the big obstacles that has stood in the way of making high-end tech-wear ubiquitous: cost. Project Jacquard's threads can be woven using current machine technology, so no new factories will need to be built before it can be mass-produced.
Google also haven't yet solved the "washability" problem. They told TechRadar.com they're still trying to figure it out, either by making the threads or garments waterproof, or by connecting the fabric to a central power source that can be removed before washing. They have also copped to not knowing how to advise people how to repair a haywire smart jacket that texts your ex every time you try to button it.
And of course, before we can start living in our touchscreen jeans, we're going to have to figure out how to turn them off. Humans jostle each other frequently, especially those of us who live in cities; an unintentional touch or scrape is really not going to be appreciated if it leaves a trail of gibberish emails and blaring music as well as a bruise. And we also rearrange our clothing, taking it off and refastening it throughout the day; our clothing still has to function as clothing, not just as a method of calling our mother when we can't be bothered to reach for the phone. There will have to be a clear way to switch the interactive capability off.
But overall, this looks like a pretty exciting new time for fashionistas and tech-heads alike. We're not living in a world of Tony Stark-level touch screens-in-the-air sci-fi coolness yet, but touching a button on your chest to communicate with somebody, Star Trek-style, is still pretty danged good.
Images: Google's Project Jacquard