Google’s futuristic wearable tech platform just took a big leap forward.
After more than two years of testing, Jacquard, the company’s project to embed technology into clothes, is ready to launch. The Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google (yes, that’s actually what it’s called), is now on sale in select stores.
And while it’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea of a $350 jacket that comes with its own app, Jacquard is more than a gimmick. After a few days of wearing Levi’s Jacquard jacket, I’m more convinced than ever that the future of wearable tech lies not in tiny screens on our wrists, but in the stuff we’re already wearing.
What’s in a “smart” jacket
At first glance, the jacket looks just like a normal, stylish denim jacket. Available in both men’s and women’s sizes, the dark wash denim jacket is every bit as comfortable and well-made as you’d expect in a high-end Levi’s jacket.
All of Jacquard’s tech is limited to the left sleeve, though even that is more subtle than you’d think. The end of the left sleeve is made of a slightly different denim material that’s been specially woven with conductive thread, allows the sleeve to act as an interactive touchpad for the jacket.
The touchpad is powered by a rechargeable, bluetooth-enabled “tag” that snaps into the inside of the left sleeve. Besides bluetooth, it also has LED lights and a haptics motor so it can vibrate with certain types of notifications.
While it still doesn’t look conspicuously “techy,” the bulky tag does have an unfortunate resemblance to the anti-theft tags you commonly see in clothing stores. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s definitely noticeable.
Luckily, much of the tag is hidden while you’re actually wearing it. The bottom half with the USB end tucks into a pocket in the cuff, which helps make the tag look a bit more discreet.
The tag recharges via USB, though Google says you shouldn’t expect to have to recharge very often. The battery is expected to last about two weeks for the “average” commuter, according to the company, though exact battery life will vary based on how busy your phone is.
Abilities and gestures
You interact with the jacket by either tapping or swiping on the touchpad on the left sleeve. There are three main gestures: double tapping, swiping in, and swiping out. Using the Jacquard app, you can assign a different “ability” to each gesture.
There’s also an additional gesture for muting an unwanted to interaction. Just cover your sleeve with your hand to silence an ability. (You’ll be grateful for this gestures when someone inevitably brushes against your arm and your phone starts barking GPS directions or playing music.)
There are, for now, only a handful of abilities, which are mostly used for controlling music playback and navigation. I found music to be by far the most useful: you can skip ahead or go back to the previous song in a playlist, pause or start your song, or use one called “what’s playing,” to hear the name of the current song read aloud.
There are also abilities for navigation (to get your ETA or the next direction on your route), and “keep track,” which either acts as a counter or tells you the current time.
While these can all be assigned to a particular swipe, the “communication” abilities only work with the actual tag. When assigned, the tag will light up and vibrate when you get a call or text.
The gestures themselves are fairly intuitive: I spent much of the time with play/pause as a double tap, skip ahead as a swipe forward, and “what’s playing” as a swipe in. But while I liked these, I found the overall selection of abilities a little too limited.
You can only really use three at any given time, since there’re only three gestures you can assign (the “communication” abilities that use the tag’s LEDs are more passive notifications than anything else).
Jacquard was also, occasionally, glitchy. There were a couple times when the jacket wouldn’t respond to any gestures at all. Despite an active bluetooth connection and full battery, the jacket displayed as “disconnected” even when I was wearing it. I eventually figured out that fiddling around with the app’s tutorials would “reset” the connection.
This type of glitch is likely easily fixed, but there’s still something maddeningly frustrating about troubleshooting the bluetooth connection for your jacket.
What Jacquard means for the future
While it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty of what Jacquard does and doesn’t do, it’s equally important to remember there’s a much bigger picture here.
If Google has its way, Jacquard is the first step toward a future where technology isn’t just about the gadgets that sit in our pockets or on our wrists, but lives within all the stuff around us. Put another way: Google is starting to prepare for a future without screens.
the world around us becomes the next frontier for computing
“What we see now is the physical world, the world around us, becomes the next frontier for computing,” says Ivan Poupyrev, the project lead for Jacquard at Google. “This is a form of AR, except instead of trying to augment reality through the mobile phone, we’re trying to augment reality directly by embedding technology into the physical things you’re already using.”
Which gets at one of the other appeals of reinventing wearables as actual clothes: convenience. One of my biggest issues with smartwatches is that glancing at a tiny screen on your wrist isn’t actually that much better that just pulling out your phone.
Limited though Jacquard’s abilities currently are, at least I don’t need to look at a screen to take advantage of them.