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Smart fabric weaves touch, gesture interactivity

02 Jun 2015  | Jessica Lipsky

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Jacquard's conductive yarns

Google announced a project to scale manufacturing of fabrics that use gestures to wirelessly control mobile devices, lights and more.

Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team unveiled Project Jacquard, a conductive thread initiative, at its annual developer conference (May 29). Jacquard has been in development since early 2014 and makes it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms.

"The structure of a capacitive touch sensing device is very similar to that of a woven fabric," ATAP Design Lead Carsten Schwesig said. "The core of what we're doing is replacing some of these yarns with conductive yarns."

Traditional conductive yarns present several issues when it comes to mass production: the intense heat associated with industrial manufacturing processes isn't great for electronics, and there aren't enough colours to make good-looking fabrics. Jacquard yarns combine thin, metallic alloys with natural and synthetic yarns to create a strong yarn with 0.1Ω resistance in a variety of colours.

The yarns can then be woven using 3D techniques and connected to a microcontroller to create a low-power touchpad. The threads are inherently low power, and Schwesig said he expects threads embedded in clothing would last about a week. Although energy harvesting would be a "brilliant application" for smart garments, ATAP is not working on it.

Textile computing

Google ATAP aims to create "soft, flexible textile computing" using 3D techniques.

Google demonstrated several use cases for the smart fabric in which users made broad gestures to turn on lights and play music on a phone. Schwesig said the yarns are being used in automotive interiors but said Jacquard is currently a more generic technology that's designed without a specific use case in mind.

"The big challenge is how to move from a textile domain to electronics domain," Schwesig noted, adding that connecting additional components is merely a design choice. "It's fairly easy to stitch something like this together, and if you have basic electronics knowledge you can hook it up to a capacitive sensor, but we care about actually being able to produce this."

ATAP has parted with a textile maker in Japan and announced a partnership with San Francisco-based Levi Strauss to develop smart fabrics on a large scale, with the goal of bridging the gap between "a beautiful richly textured real world" and a digital world.

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