There’s an old quote from a legendary science fiction author that Ivan Poupyrev used to explain what Google is doing with its Jacquard smart clothing division. It’s about technology, and it’s about magic.
The connection point?
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke, who was the first to propose global communications via geostationary satellites in 1945.
“Magic is when things happen by themselves,” Poupyrev, a Google executive in the company’s smart clothing division, told me in a recent episode of the TechFirst podcast. “When you don’t see the controls and buttons and sliders; when it just happens on its own under your command or your thought.”
That’s essentially the vision of Google’s smart clothing internal startup. Called Jacquard, which means either “a fabric of intricate variegated weave or pattern” or the control mechanisms of an old-fashioned fabric weaving machine — a loom — the project aims to making computing at once ubiquitous and simple by turning everyday objects into intuitive interfaces.
In a 2019 TED talk with almost 600,000 views, Poupyrev talked about making everything around us computers. As he moves through his 13-minute overview of the evolution of computing from screens to everyday objects around all of us, he doesn’t have a clicker to move his slides forward. Instead, he occasionally touches the lower left sleeve of his jean jacket. That jean jacket was a smart jacket: a collaboration between Levi’s and Google that embeds Google’s smart sensors and communicates with a phone or computer.
I asked him how long it took for people to clue in that this random action — scratching an itch, perhaps, or a nervous twitch — was actually advancing the slides on the computer running his presentation deck.
“You know, it took them a while,” Poupyrev said. “I think some of the people started noticing; I could see this kind of glints of understanding in the crowd. It’s only when I told in the middle of the talk that I’m controlling this presentation from the jacket, I could see this awe in the audience.”
That’s a kind of magic, created by making technology both invisible and intuitive.
And it’s a magic that allowed Poupyrev to run through his talk with nothing in his hands: no clicker or remote control, just hands which could naturally and fully “talk” along with his speech to express his meaning.
Not using a clicker, says Poupyrev, was liberating.
That liberation is something that likely many of us sense a need for when we think about the ubiquity of technology in our lives. But not just any technology: particularly technology with screens that demand our attention and divert it from friends, coworkers, and family members. Voice user interfaces have helped reduce the need for screens and make technology ambient in our lives: being able to say “Alexa, play some French jazz” is also a liberating experience and one that transforms a long multi-stage process that demands most of our attention (if not all of it) into a simple command that can be spoken while doing something entirely different, like playing with a child or washing the dishes.
In a similar way, Jacquard is focused on helping us engage with technology while being fully present in the moment and engaged with what we’re doing.
That changes our experience of technology, Poupyrev says.
“Using technology should become easier,” he told me. “Having this technology more accessible while doing something else is one of the things which will become possible.”
That’s not just for some.
It’s for everyone, including those living with disabilities.
Google’s testing the technology at Champions Place in Atlanta, where young physically challenged adults are wearing connected clothing to get directions, activate emergency distress calls, or more mundane things like skipping a song in their playlists. Seniors are another group that can find technology difficult: phone screens are small and hard to read, and for those who haven’t grown up with technology, what seems easy and intuitive to others can be opaque, confusing, and frustrating. Tapping or stroking a sleeve, however, is eminently doable for most.
Of course, Google’s not entering the garment industry.
Instead, Google makes the control and sensor unit, which can be woven into any garment or incorporated into a shoe. It connects with a phone — Android only, for now — and you can map actions to inputs.
“We have a variety of options which you can map on your jacket or backpack or shoe, and make it do something different, you know — call Uber, or tell you somebody is calling you, or give you your schedule for the next hour or something,” Poupyrev says. “Or you could program with Google Assistant, right? So all this functionality becomes possible to trigger straight from your things you’re already wearing, without having to pull out the phone or do something else.”
The device can give feedback as well: haptic for buzzing or other actions you can feel, and colored lights for visual responses or notifications.
Haptic is much more important than visual though, says Poupyrev. Which makes sense: few people walk around looking at their jacket sleeve or shoe, but a buzz or vibration will generally get our attention.
In the future, Google may enable multiple control methodologies, like voice control, spatial gesture control, even gaze control. For now, it’s simple touch and tap-based communication.
The question is: should all our clothing be smart? Should our jeans tell us, for instance that they totally don’t go with the purple shirt we just put on, and should our shoes inform us when we’ve walked 7,000 miles in them and they’ll be shortly due for replacement?
“If you ask me as a technologist … then my answer will be yes, of course,” says Poupyrev. “It’s going to make things better, because technology makes things better. I strongly believe that. I’m an optimist when it comes to technology. Technology has the power to make our lives better.”
In the real world of multiple garments and desks and doors, however, Poupyrev says that it won’t work everywhere, and that we need to be thoughtful about where technology can improve experience and life, and where it’s just tech for tech’s sake.
Ultimately, however, the goal is magic.
And that magic involves a redefinition of what it means to use and access technology.
“We really hope that many things around us become augmented and it gives access to technology through them,” Poupyrev says. “My main goal is that people will change their perception of what technology is. They will stop thinking about technology as a square screen, and a keyboard, and a mouse … but everything would become sort of inhabited by technology.”
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