2016 was supposed to be the year that smart clothing really took off, but as we wrote recently, it's still very much holding out for a hero to take it mainstream.
That hero could come in the shape of Google and Levi's Project Jacquard. The connected denim jacket that will let urban cyclists interact with their phones hands-free from their jacket sleeve is landing in Spring 2017 with a limited beta launching in Fall 2016.
Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi's is leading the Jacquard project charge from the American clothing giant's side and says it's still all on track to deliver its first connected garment. "We committed to introducing a product this year and we're excited to have working production samples that developers can use to help build on our initial prototypes," he told us.
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Dillinger, who has 16 years of experience at fashion houses like Calvin Klein and DKNY give us a sense how the company feels with this new venture. "This is invisible technology and discrete, intuitive gestures that have the potential to change our relationship with clothing. Of course, I'm very excited for our consumers to try this out; to see how they respond to this new form of wearable technology. But there's also a certain level of anxiety."
Google did not want to tackle clothing, they wanted to partner with experts in the field
Dillinger gave us an insight on why it decided now was the right time to take the leap into the world of connected clothing. "Our Levi's Commuter line has always been about purpose-driven design and solving real world problems," Dillinger said. "Our goal is always to create clothes that perform as great as they look. We've gone from concept to product in less than one year which we weren't sure was possible."
While Levi's has collaborated in the past with other major fashion labels, partnering with a tech brand was an entirely different proposition. Dillinger believes both companies are bringing something special to the table, talking up Levi's innovative, creative and pioneering spirit that's helped the two work so well together.
"When Google called on Levi's to be their first partner for the Jacquard interactive fabric, they knew they could count on us for our expertise," Dillinger explained. "As the inventors of the blue jean we have more than 140 years of experience and built-in supply chains. Google did not want to tackle clothing, they wanted to partner with experts in the field."
That's not to say there wasn't scepticism around the "wearable technology" concept, but Levi's was won over by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) approach to smartening up clothing. "When we thought about a woven tactile interface, we were impressed that it could be done, but unsure if it should be done," he explained.
Perhaps this was a solution, but what was the problem? After spending a few days thinking about how this technology could be useful and really improve the lives of the people who wear our product, the "problem" this technology could resolve became clear.
Dillinger went on to explain exactly what that "problem" is.
People rely on their smartphones for a lot of useful functionality, but they spend too much time staring at a screen instead of being present and engaged in the world around them. At the dinner table, this behaviour can be annoying.
But for someone on their bike, it can be downright dangerous. In this way, Project Jacquard stopped being a novel solution in search of a problem. It became a credible, innovative solution to a major challenge that anyone who rides a bike understands: "How can I go on my ride without going off grid?"
Designing a smart denim jacket
The process of making Project Jacquard a reality is understandably a complex one. With Jacquard, Google and Levi's have produced a conductive yarn that combines thin metallic alloys with yarns that you typically find on clothing. So cotton, polyesters or even silk.
In the case of the Commuter Jacket, this interactive yarn has been used to build touch and gesture sensitive areas on the sleeve and sensor grids can be created for even larger interactive surfaces. This allows designers to take advantage of LEDs, haptic and other outputs to provide feedback for the user. But while there's plenty of tech on board, Dillinger wants people to treat it just like any other jacket.
Project Jacquard stopped being a novel solution in search of a problem. It became a credible, innovative solution to a major challenge that anyone who rides a bike understands
"You might think you'd have to treat it with extra care. But remember, this is a garment – not a gadget," he told us. "So you know what else you can do with it? You can wad it up and shove it in your backpack. You can toss it on the floor when you get home. You can even throw it in the laundry when it gets dirty. The denim jacket remains the iconic garment that we know and love, but is enhanced with digital functionality and woven tactile interface."
The decision to add the smarts into the cuff is an interesting move as well. So far, we've seen the likes of Athos, OMSignal and Hexoskin focus on integrating sensors into often quite compressed garments. In Dillinger's mind, this was always the best solution. "The placement and size of the tactile interface area was thoughtfully designed for easiest access and maximum value," Dillinger explained.
"We wanted the gestures to feel natural and discreet. It's possible to activate much larger areas of the textile, or to place the active interface all over the body, but I wouldn't. I think you might look funny sending a text from your shoulder or skipping ahead to the next track by tapping your butt. It is a seamless experience that doesn't sacrifice the style of our iconic Trucker jacket."
A connected jacket was always the first option for Levi's as well. "Most of us have a closet full of jeans and shirts; but we have a lot fewer jackets," Dillinger explained. "Our research told us that about 70% of our consumers had one jacket or piece of outerwear that they chose to wear three or more times a week. The jacket was the most natural choice because it offers great placement for the smart tag: on the rider's wrist, where it's easy to receive notifications without distracting your ride."
While we can't get our hands on the first piece of Jacquard clothing just yet, that's not stopped Dillinger and his team thinking what else could be in store for the future. How much smarter can Jacquard become? What else could it do to make your life easier?
"We're excited to get this jacket into the hands of our friends and fans and see how they like it," Dillinger said. "We'll be able to see what functions or abilities are most popular: Will people use the navigation and mapping features most?Will media management and access to cloud-based services like Spotify be the most popular?
It's possible that the most successful application is one we haven't even thought of. We're also excited to see how the boundless creativity of app developers will respond to the Jacquard platform. Jacquard activates this creative constituency, bringing new thinking into the fashion design process."