Levi Strauss & Co. and Google Inc. are collaborating on an initiative aimed to make one’s jeans, jackets, shirts and even underwear into wearable technology input devices.

Project Jacquard is being introduced at Google’s developers’ conference today and will endeavor to put the input functions available on smartwatches and smart glasses directly into woven fabrics. Conductive fibers, developed by Google through a Japanese firm, can be woven into virtually any type of woven textile, without so much as the modification of the loom.

“As far as yarn thickness goes, we’re not almost in the same ballpark,” said Paul Dillinger, vice president of innovation for the Levi’s brand. “We are already in the same ballpark. Google has accepted the supply chain for what it is and there’s no modification for any of the looms as we’ve been working with this.

“Fundamentally, this is empowering the garment as a platform, not the garment as a device,” he added, noting that, with today’s events at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., conference, the door is now open for application development.

Levi’s expects to have products based on Project Jacquard in the market by the fall 2016 season.

Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Products group, said, “We’ve been looking at conductive garments for over 20 years. What we’ve done is build the interactive element into the textile. We join the yarns with a connector that enables you to connect to a mobile phone or tablet. It’s about the size of a regular Levi’s button and includes a power source and Bluetooth connection.”

While most wearable technology has been confined to accessories categories, including Google’s Google Glass project now being reconsidered by the company, unions of wearable tech and traditional soft apparel have tended to lean toward devices that read biometrics, such as Ralph Lauren Corp.’s Polo Tech shirt, rather than the interactive configuration Levi’s and Google are seeking.

The two executives both recognized that the third stakeholder in their venture will be the developers. “This isn’t a launch, it’s a platforming opportunity. It becomes a home to new forms and applications that we haven’t thought of yet,” said Dillinger. “The potential is that the input is the gesture – crossing your legs, swiping, waving, lifting.”

In discussing the genesis of Google’s work with Levi’s, Poupyrev said that the companies began talking after Levi’s executives were in Google’s offices last year and, while both companies could envision obstacles, they considered the potential payoff too great to pass up.

“To make high-tech scalable and profitable, you need large volumes, but it goes against the nature of fashion to make a lot of a single product,” he said. “We’re not the military. Fashion means variety, and this technology can work with virtually any kind of textile and any kind of garment, even sheer silks or lingerie.”

Jacquard-equipped apparel could also trigger functionality already present in the owner’s phone or tablet as well.

Both officials saw implications beyond the technical in the new twist on wearables.

Dillinger cited “the opportunity to get our faces out of our phones, to be engaged in the real world again, to watch a concert instead of recording one.”

Poupyrev acknowledged “people’s desires to get back to simplicity. Up until now, it’s always been a question of adding another device to those you already have. It’s another purchase, another thing to buy and carry with you. Clothing? It’s something that’s always in the background, so basic. Why create something else to buy when we already have things to wear?”

The Google executive noted that the yarns developed by the Japanese firm lend themselves not only to various yarn widths but colors as well. While declining to identify the company, he said that previous attempts at the development of conductive yarns were “ugly, in one color, expensive and not conductive enough.”

The yarn firm is gearing up for expanded production as Project Jacquard moves into higher gear.

“What they engineered is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” said Levi’s Dillinger.

Warming up to a metaphor based on his company’s beginnings, Dillinger likened the search to bring interactive wearables into apparel to the journey taken by the founder of Levi’s, Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who made the demanding journey to San Francisco to set up a dry goods store for the Gold Rush prospectors of the mid-19th century.

“That’s where the opportunity was then,” he said. “Where is it today? Silicon Valley.”

 

 

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