At initial glance, the new “Levi’s Commuter x Jacquard by Google Trucker Jacket” appears like a straightforward piece of clothing. There’s nothing that shouts technology – no big flashing screens, no hefty battery packs, no suggestion that it does anything more than just look good.
In fact, explore a little closer and the only unusual thing you’ll spot on this jean jacket is a slight error in the weave alongside a black strap partially wrapped around the cuff of the sleeve, modeled as a version of what you’d find on a trench coat.
Announced today at Google I/O, the item is indeed a subtle piece of wearable technology, and the outcome of the yearlong collaboration between Levi Strauss & Co and Google’s Advanced Technology and Products (ATAP) group, under the banner of Project Jacquard.
“Last year we left it quite open [what the product might be]; it could have been jeans or smart pants. But what we’ve now got is a functional and fashionable garment in the Commuter Jacket, where technology is serving a very clear purpose,” explains Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google’s ATAP, on a call ahead of today’s announcement.
Designed specifically to meet the needs of urban cyclists, the “error” found in the denim weave is in fact home to Jacquard technology – a conductive yarn that enables touch interactivity. Users can tap, swipe or hold on the left cuff of the sleeve to fulfill simple tasks like changing music tracks, blocking or answering calls or accessing navigation information (delivered by voice) – all functions that can be sustained while riding in place of having to pull a phone out to do them. The strap is what then holds the necessary electronics to connect the garment on the go.
Making the technology invisible
The idea is that the user experience of the jacket itself is incredibly intuitive – a swipe or brush skips a music track, a tap can mute it, for instance. But getting to that point had as much to do with the look and feel of the item as it did with what the tech capability would be.
If there’s been one criticism of wearable technology in the marketplace to date, it’s very simply that it looks too much like technology. For Google and Levi’s therefore, the quest became about making something that was in tune with items we already like to wear (i.e. fashionable).
“One of the biggest realizations we had in understanding how fashion and technology can work together is just how much tension there is… It’s not just that wearables are not fashionable, the problem is that if you’re trying to take a garment and put technology through it, then that technology cannot fundamentally compromise the appearance, or the authenticity of the garment,” Poupyrev notes. “But trying to be authentic to the garment imposes very important design constraints, which also give you answers in the process of development.”
“Initially there was appetite from the technologists to make the activated space on the denim as explicit as possible, and to say ‘here I am, this is where I function’,” Dillinger explains. “For us, it was about hiding it; that space for function should only be known to the wearer… It’s almost like a magician’s trick – the technology should not be apparent at all, you just look good, that’s all.”
The strap, or smart tag, also aims to blend in. Poupyrev and Dillinger knew there couldn’t be a cable that came with the jacket if it were to be taken seriously as a fashion item for instance, so the tag houses a USB connecter in order for it to be charged (roughly every few days). The snap button atop it then has a haptic motor in it for vibration feedback and a subtle LED light that glows to notify or help direct the user on their travels.
“All the energy right now around wearables in the marketplace has been about refining their overt design. This has been about hiding and making covert all of that function,” says Dillinger.
Further challenges surrounded ensuring the resulting item was also in line with the way in which consumers treat clothing. It needed to be possible to throw it on a chair when taking it off, for instance, and it especially had to be able to go through the washing machine. That was tested until it could withstand the same amount as other denim products.
“The real news is that we’ve made wearables that you can throw in the washing machine, and that still have functional technology afterwards,” explains Dillinger. To actually do so, the strap on the cuff is snapped off, but the rest – including the textile interface – can all go through the wash process.
Manufacturing at scale
Beyond form and function, the real innovation around this launch is the fact the jacket is produced in existing Levi’s factories. At the core of Jacquard is the ability to integrate it into established supply chains. The interactive textile is woven on Levi’s looms in the same way as any other regular Levi’s jacket at a major industrial mill – making scale, rather than a few one-off products, a real possibility.
Says Poupyrev: “Often the thing that technology companies don’t really appreciate is that garments are made by apparel makers, not by consumer electronics companies. So if we really want to make technology a part of every garment in the world, then we have to empower apparel makers such as Levi’s or any other brand, to be able to manufacture smart garments. It means you have to work with their supply chain.”
Long term the aim for Levi’s is to expand Jacquard across a wider product assortment. To do so, the technology itself will be opened up to developers from early 2017 to create functionalities beyond the commuter market.
“We defined what the needs were [for the jacket] based on this very particular subset of consumers that we have; the needs of the urban cyclist. But that also then creates a certain limitation for how many of these jackets are required,” explains Dillinger. “The excitement and the opportunity for real scale happens when the development community get ahold of it and they bring a whole different set of creative eyes onto the challenges and the opportunities that the technology presents. They will start developing new abilities that we hadn’t thought of that will open up viability to scale to even greater product assortment, and to deploy more broadly than just the Levi’s commuter consumer. It’s going to take time to get momentum and scale, but we’re prepared.”
Google is also continuing to look at opportunities to work with new partners. Beyond the initial launch with Levi’s, Poupyrev’s team is exploring athletics, formal workwear and enterprise garments, as well as the luxury market. He views the opportunity as an industry-wide one that consumers are quickly going to expect and desire.
“If you look at the history of apparel you can see how technology comes in and adds new functionality, like nylon and zippers. It’s very natural at this point that new technology becomes another ingredient in building apparel and fashion of the future. Once appetite is there in the public for smart textiles, it becomes almost like a right, people will expect it all the time and everywhere,” he says.
In the meantime, the Levi’s Commuter x Jacquard by Google Trucker Jacket will go into beta testing this fall, where the team will invite people from both the commuter and tech communities to apply to test the garment and provide feedback on the functionalities. It will then go to market for both men and women in spring 2017 in various US cities, before broader release in Europe and Asia later in the year.