Gimmick or niche?

That was the question from apparel and technology executives following the news of the tie-up between Levi Strauss & Co. and Google Inc. to transform woven apparel into wearable input devices for smartphones and tablets.

The two companies on Friday shared with developers their plans to use conductive fibers, easily incorporated into woven fabrics, to bring wearable tech to standard apparel, such as jeans and shirts. The plans place the onus on developers to develop applications – and it is those that will ultimately determine the venture’s success or failure.

Project Jacquard, started through Google’s work with an unidentified yarn developer in Japan, seeks to transform everyday apparel into a substitute for the activities currently executed by the users of smartphones and tablets.

“This isn’t a launch, it’s a platforming opportunity,” said Paul Dillinger, vice president of innovation for the Levi’s brand. “It becomes a home to new forms and applications we haven’t thought of yet. The potential is that the input is the gesture — crossing your legs, swiping, saving, lifting.

“As far as yarn thickness goes,” he noted, “we’re not almost in the same ballpark. 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.”

The breakthrough for Google was when the Japanese firm developed conductive yarns that, unlike the predecessors they had seen, were not “ugly, in one color, expensive [or] not conductive enough,” said Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Products group. He also noted that the connector linking to the owner’s smart device would be “about the size of a regular Levi’s button” and include both power source and Bluetooth connection.”

Observers of the evolution of wearable technology, as well as those focused on the apparel sector, had plenty of reservations about the project — especially the partners’ view that it would mark an unseen adaptation of a product consumers were already buying rather than the purchase of an entirely new technology or device.

Grant Hughes, a founder of FocusMotion, a company that develops software for wearable companies, looks forward to the “cool new features” likely to come out of the Levi’s-Google alliance and was impressed that the fibers involved with Project Jacquard “are the same or look the same to the human eye. What remains to be seen is how these fibers will be used. That’s where developers come in. Google and Levi’s will make the hardware or the platform software to enable cool new features, but it’s the developers who are the true innovators. What isn’t apparent is what sensors these fibers enable. However, I can imagine a future where movement will be monitored closely to improve how people move.”

At the very least, sensors could alert the wearer to weight gain, he said, and perhaps recommend a workout or provide a discount at a gym or yoga class, he added. “This is an entirely new field of wearable marketing — FocusMotion is building the algorithms to actually understand this movement in context and is powering apps to help people live healthier lives.”

“It’s certainly a next step forward in the battle to get broader adoption of wearables,” said Greg Ellis, manager of the Kurt Salmon consulting group’s San Francisco office. “There’s obviously a lot of activity in this space, but it’s been concentrated on hardware and biometrics. What we’ve seen is that there has to be a need for something for it to be big. Is it a need or a gimmick?”

The Apple Watch, he said, was an add-on device, while, considering Project Jacquard’s roots with Google, the resulting apparel would be cross-platform and able to be used with Android devices.

“Is there a killer app for this? What am I getting that I don’t have? The idea of embedding sensors in clothes sounds like a promising proposition, and we know the smartest people in the world will be working to make this a ‘gotta have,’” he said.

Ellis thought that, like other elements of wearable tech in the apparel space, he would expect to see the concept find a home as Google began to promote it to companies beyond Levi’s. “It’s interesting that Levi’s is the first because they don’t play in the [athletic] space at all, as opposed to companies like Under Armour, Nike and others who’ve invested their own resources to figure out how to win with wearables.”

Michelle Goldberg, a partner at venture capital firm Ignition, isn’t surprised that technology powering smart clothing is getting smaller and smaller. She acknowledged that Levi’s and Google were being smart in their approach to scalability and ensuring that the conductive fibers can be used on existing industrial looms that won’t complicate the supply chain. But she doesn’t see an immediate use for what is now being developed.

“They frame it as a platform. It is hard to launch a platform without a killer feature or product — something people really want and will use,” she said, citing the iPhone’s ability to make calls as a draw from the get-go.

“Textile conductive fabrics have been around for a little bit, but a lot of what Google’s innovation is within how they are able to integrate it into full-scale textile manufacturing,” said Peter Li, chief executive officer of Atlas Wearables.

He described smart clothing as still a “novel entrant” in the connected technology world but said that, like the Google Glass project currently on hiatus, the use case is still vague. “I can control my music on the sleeve of my shirt or mute my phone on my pants leg,” he said. “I’m not totally convinced that is a breakthrough.”

While the task of imparting eye-opening features to the project will be left to the developer, he was impressed with the development already undertaken just to produce a small-scale connector.

“They got it down to the size of a normal pants button, which is a huge step,” Li said, noting that the alliance brings connected clothing one step close to critical mass. He noted that such miniaturization had been a challenge.

He also wondered about the effects that perspiration, wear and tear, and washing and drying might have on the connected clothing, which in other firms’ products generally can withstand between 100 and 120 washes.

“Our main focus is around the software and interpretation of the raw data,” he said, drawing on Atlas Wristband’s open API (application programming interface) technology that is compatible with Sensoria, a company that uses conductive materials in socks.

Andrew Olah, ceo of Olah Inc., the firm that produces the Kingpins trade show and operates its own textile sales business, applauded the introduction of new technology but wondered about the practicality of purchasing clothes built from the new technology.

“Our industry desperately needs new technologies, but they have to be technologies that are intuitive,” he said. “That’s why Macintosh prevailed in the computer wars. They were simple. They were intuitive.”

One of his concerns is that connected clothing is likely to be designed to suit the priorities of the brand, rather than those of the consumer.

“Button, label and zipper manufacturers who sell to all the brands might be the right ones to explore this,” he said. “Our industry needs universal applications of things like this, but the brands all want their own applications and takes on it.”