More than a year after it was announced and two years after we first saw a demonstration of touch-sensitive fabric, the Levi’s jacket with a smart sleeve is finally going on sale. I’ve been wearing this Levi’s Commuter Trucker jacket for a few days now and it’s very nice. It fits well and looks great. And by swiping or tapping the fabric on the left cuff, I have been able to control my smartphone.
Whether those things add up to a $350 value — the price of this jacket — is entirely a different question. It’s targeted at people who commute by bike, and I think the only people beyond that target market are going to be a few techies and people who just really like jean jackets. It works with both Android and iPhone, by the way.
A standard Levi’s trucker jacket costs $148, though Levi’s has been quick to point out that designer denim jackets can run well over $400. I’m no fashion critic, but I can tell you I’m impressed with the fit and look of this one.
When you talk to both Levi’s and Google, they’re very eager to tell a design story about this jacket, not just a technology story. It comes out of a partnership between the clothing company and a small division of Google dedicated to experimentation. We’ve seen lots of weird projects inside Google’s ATAP, but most of them (like the ill-fated Project Ara) have ended up getting scuttled.
This one, Project Jacquard, finally made it. “Jacquard” is named after a loom, and the core idea is both simple and complicated: make fabric touch-sensitive, like the screen on your phone. It’s achieved through yet more simple ideas which turn out to be devilishly complicated to execute.
Basically, Google and Levi’s had to figure out how to integrate capacitive threads with a copper core into the actual manufacturing process for a denim jacket, then use a tiny little Bluetooth dongle that attaches to a button to communicate to your phone. It took a lot of design work to make that happen, because the jacket needed to feel like a jacket. The result is a thing you can actually put in the washing machine and dryer without ruining the circuitry inside.
“We wanted to make a garment, not a gadget,” says Ivan Poupyrev, the person in charge of Google’s side of the project. And working with Levi’s to create the manufacturing process for the jacket, I think he’s come a long way toward achieving that goal.
Okay, but how does it work? As I said, you attach a small little “tag” to the left cuff of the jacket. You then pair it to an app on your phone and go through a little tutorial that sets up the three different gestures you can configure. You can brush in, brush out, and double tap. There’s a forth gesture, just holding your hand on the fabric, which is hard-coded to just shutting your phone up.
The idea is that when you’re on a bike, you can just reach over and brush your sleeve to interact with your phone and get audio cues. It’s certainly a lot safer than, you know, messing with your actual touchscreen while you ride. But is it any more convenient than, say, smart controls on a Bluetooth headset? Probably not, but it is a neat thing. Again, Levi’s and Google are trying to sell you on a nice jacket that does some extra stuff, not just on a gadget’s technical capabilities.
The Jacquard system can automatically tell when you’re wearing the jacket, and it sets up your phone to a kind of biking mode. It reads texts aloud either through the phone itself (which is meant to nestle is a special inside pocket on the left breast) or through your headphones. It can be configured to only allow calls and texts from important people.
To start, there aren’t a ton of things you can do with the cuff. The idea is that there are just a handful of actions you need to be doing when you’re on a bike. Controlling your music is the best part, but there are a handful of other features. My favorite is that you can set your home or work address. I set it to a double-tap, and when I did that, the phone automatically grabbed my location, queried Google Maps, and then spoke the next direction I needed to get home.
The most fun you can have with the tech is a screen where you can see the real-time interaction with the touch-sensitive treads. It looks a little like a guitar fret, and you can run your fingers along it and see it working, including how hard you’re pushing down. It’s a silly thing, you’re kind of just pushing buttons and seeing something light up, but the buttons are threads, which is neat.
These are just some impressions. My colleague Nick Statt actually bikes to work on a daily basis, so he’s better qualified to give this thing a full review — and he will. But if you’re already convinced, the jacket is going on sale in a few boutique stores on the 27th and will be available in some Levi’s stores and on levi.com on October 2nd.
And about that delay: Google and Levi’s had originally promised this jacket would be available much sooner. When I asked about it, there were two answers. The first is that it took some doing to make all the manufacturing, the app, and the rest of the technology more durable and reliable. But the second, more important, answer is that selling jackets isn’t the same as selling gadgets. Jackets go into retail channels in the fall, when people buy jackets.