I Wore Google's Smart Jacket of the Mediocre Future

All images: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo
All images: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

I sat on the subway, gently petting my denim jacket to skip songs on Spotify, wondering—is this the future? To which I say, I really hope a dongle in my jacket isn’t the future. It’s certainly not the one we were promised.

Advertisement

But hold on, I’m getting ahead myself. You might recall that at Google I/O in 2015, the big G’s experimental Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) team showed off Project Jacquard, a touch sensor technology woven directly into fabric. In a video published at the time, the project’s founder Ivan Pouprey observed that the structure of fabric is very similar to that of a touchscreen. ATAP told us then that its initial goal was to find a way to control smartphones with the tech, but of course, the tech could have all kinds of applications. The longer term ambitions, as articulated by Pouprey, amounted to no less than creating fabric-based objects with invisible computing powers.

Advertisement

In 2015, the tech was still rudimentary, but it was impressive in a tantalizing way. The tech was terrible, but the ideas were great, and the possibilities felt endless. Fast forward to 2017, and the years of R&D have yielded a $350 Levi’s jean jacket with Jacquard technology sewn in.

When I first opened the shipping box to check out the jacket, I was pleasantly surprised. This is cute! The future is here! Invisible computer clothing! It looked like a nice quality denim jacket, no circuits or wires to be seen. Then I saw a few-inches long strip of plastic still in the box, and I had to laugh, because, for a second, I had believed that we had finally achieved fashion tech absent of any clunky hardware or haptic feedback or blinking lights. For a second, I was a believer. And then that pesky little hunk of plastic stared up at me as if silently communicating, “you misguided fool.”

Of course this thing needs a damn dongle to work. While Google did manage to fulfill its promise in weaving tech into a piece of clothing, similarly to what it demoed two years ago, it still couldn’t fully deliver its vision without a separate piece of hardware. While the touch sensor tech is there, Google still needs to power it. And that’s where the dongle—equipped with a mini computer, Bluetooth radio, and battery—comes in.

Discrete!!
Discrete!!
Advertisement

John McCarthy, the head of product at Project Jacquard, told Gizmodo that they could have made the current design of the dongle “a lot smaller” but that it was an intentional design choice in order to “mimic the sort of strap you would naturally see on the cuff of the jacket.” While striving to stay true to Levi’s design element is a loyal effort on Google’s behalf, the hardware could stand to be scaled down. Consciously choosing not to, in my opinion, is dumb. As for whether the tags will ever be invisible, McCarthy said, “We’ll see.”

And in fairness, it’s not that obtrusive—you can conceal the USB connector under a flap in the sleeve like a dweebie Houdini. That leaves a sliver of the tag visible along with a glowing light at the tip where it actually plugs into the jacket. It’s pretty inelegant in execution, and it’s certainly not inconspicuous.

Advertisement
You can customize the gestures on the Jacquard app
You can customize the gestures on the Jacquard app

Should you submit to the tyranny of dongle and cloth, what you get is a relatively seamless controller for your phone. You can brush or tap or cover a series of threaded lines on the cuff adjacent to the dongle to make your phone do different things, including playing and pausing your music, skipping songs, getting directions, and getting notified when you receive a text. The jacket pairs with your phone through the Jacquard app, which is available for both Android and iOS. Once paired, you are able to set up your interactions, and customize which abilities go with which gestures.

Advertisement

I will admit, brushing the cuff of my jacket to skip a track on my Spotify playlist was surprisingly exciting. Was it $350 exciting? You bet your dongle it wasn’t. I know. I’ve said dongle a lot. I just want to emphasize that this smart jacket still feels like two independent products—a well-designed jacket and a dongle-cuff hybrid that performs a few functions that are uncomplicated to do from your phone, a set of headphones, or a smartwatch. And because the app needs to be running and the dongle connected to your phone’s Bluetooth to work, it’s a total battery suck.

The future!!!!
The future!!!!
Advertisement

There is certainly potential here. To Google I say, keep iterating. As it stands, this smart jacket feels more like an exceptionally cool R&D project than a product you should spend your money on. That thrilling tingle I felt when my music changed at the touch of my cuff signals its promise, but in its current form, it’s too expensive, doesn’t perform enough functions to really make your life that much easier, and is a battery drain on your phone. I’m not writing off the future for smart jackets, but for now it’s nothing but a stylish gimmick.

README

  • Cute jacket, ugly dongle
  • $350 is too expensive
  • Nothing quite like running late because you have to CHARGE YOUR JACKET
Advertisement

DISCUSSION

jenkintownposse
JTP

I recently backed a jacket on Kickstarter that was heated, and it was powered by a USB battery pack. I know this jacket here is more proof of concept than mass market, but the dongle, most of that has to be battery. I hate to be that guy who reads an article and says I can “do it better”, but it just seems so much smarter to sew in everything except the battery and water proof it. Seal in the electronics including the radios, and plug in the battery pack in a location inside a pocket. You can hot swap batteries. Now having said that, I recognize why they didn’t. Having the radios and PCB’s in the dongle makes sense for sharing the guts between clothing items in the future. Pair once, wear many. At these prices though, the few dollars worth of tech shouldn’t be an issue, neither should figuring out a way to manage pairing many items of clothing you may or may not be wearing.

Saturday morning armchair tech’ing. I feel like one of those douches who “designed a better iOS”, like the thousands of designers and developers at Apple are all wrong and this one college kid showed them all what’s up. Pfft.

Oh yea, and dongle is never not funny.