Emergent Tech

Internet of Things

Welcome to the future: Bluetooth jackets you can only wash 10 times. Gee, thanks, Google

Phone-controlling Levi's soft-wear for, presumably, non-sweaty nerds

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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Blue pants maker Levi's plans to begin selling its first cloth-ware with Google inside on Wednesday – and the tech should survive up to 10 washes.

The $350 Levi's Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google has been designed to function as device controller through the incorporation of Project Jacquard, Google's connected textile platform.

"With Jacquard technology, you can perform common digital tasks – like starting or stopping music, getting directions or reading incoming text messages – by simply swiping or tapping the jacket sleeve," said Google engineering director Ivan Poupyrev in a blog post on Monday.

The jacket can read touch events on its cuff – the one part with conductive thread – and transmit them through its Jacquard snap tag, a removable Bluetooth dongle that plugs into to the jacket and occasionally requires USB charging. The transceiver tag, which can alert the wearer to mobile device notifications via light and haptic feedback, is water-resistant in the sense that it won't be ruined by rain, but you're not supposed to wash it.

The jacket itself may be washed, just not very often. So wearing the jacket while biking, as Poupyrev suggests, is probably ill-advised for those incapable of sweat suppression.

"The jacket is designed to withstand up to 10 washes with the Jacquard snap tag removed but your experience may vary by usage and wash conditions," Google says in a support page. Tumbling the jacket dry on low heat is okay, as long as the snap tag has been removed. But Google advises letting the jacket air dry and also warns against ironing the left cuff and dry cleaning.

Gestures

The cuff presently supports four gestures – brush in (upward), brush out (downward), double tap, and cover. These can be assigned to three categories of action, related to audio, navigation or timekeeping through the Jacquard app. In short, the cuff functions as a limited remote control for the mobile phone – Android or iOS – in your pocket.

For scenarios where you can't really fiddle with your phone or speak voice commands aloud, or when light works better as an incoming message notification than vibration, the jacket may prove useful, provided you've remembered to keep the snap tag charged.

Beyond that, it's hard to see why it wouldn't have been easier to create a sleeve-mountable Bluetooth remote for $30 or so that could interact with a smartphone in the pocket of Levi's $148 Google-free version of its jacket. Then you could wash it as needed.

"Project Jacquard shows how technology companies are looking to expand the surface area of user interfaces so they're not restricted to that small screen," said Mark Hung, an analyst with tech consultancy Gartner in a phone interview with The Register.

Hung said having limited uses isn't necessarily a bad thing if the jacket does those things well. "From a technology perspective, it's a breakthrough," he said. "And from a user interface point of view, it's a step in the right direction."

Millennials, said Hung, are already hesitant to wear watches. "Wearables, unless they're inconspicuous, it's hard to get people to wear them," he said. "With technology like Jacquard, you can embed it into something they will wear."

Gartner last month said wearable device sales overall would grow 17 per cent, year on year, in 2017, thanks to interest in Bluetooth headsets and smartwatches. For connected clothing, it may be a while. ®

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