Most of the time, the fastest way to get anywhere in San Francisco is not Uber or Lyft or the ever-delayed Muni system, but on a bicycle. As long as you can handle the quad-busting hills and your reflexes are fast enough to dodge the occasional texting driver, there’s no better way to traverse the city.
As GoBike cycle-sharing stands pop up all over the city, I’ve been riding more and more. I have this problem, though: I don’t know how to get anywhere. All too often, I ride with one hand on the handlebars and the other digging into my pocket, or holding my phone, as I try to figure out my next turn.
And so when I tried on Google’s new connected jacket, I instantly understood the appeal. The jacket—technically Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google—is the result of a years-long partnership between Levi’s and Google to integrate a conductive, connected yarn into a garment. It’s still early days, but the jacket offers a glimpse into what might happen when we start connecting our clothes to the internet.
The jacket looks like most jean jackets, except for a small device on the left cuff. It’s intended to look like a strap, but it’s more reminiscent of a security tag someone forgot to remove. The black tag contains a wireless radio, a battery, and a processor, but the most important tech in the Jacquard Jacket remains invisible. A section of the left cuff is woven with the special yarn, created by Ivan Poupyrev and a team of Google scientists, that turns the bottom of your arm into a touchscreen.
When I first put on the jacket and snapped the detachable tag into place, it quickly paired to my iPhone through a dedicated Jacquard app. After a few seconds of setup, the app asked me to define a few gestures: What happens when you tap twice on the conductive yarn? What if you brush away from yourself, or toward yourself? What should it mean when the light on the tag illuminates?
I set mine to get me home. A double-tap on my left arm now sends a ping to Google Maps and delivers the next turn on my navigation, either through the speaker on my phone or whatever headphones I’m wearing. (All the Jacquard Jacket’s connectivity comes through your phone.) If I swipe away, it reads out my ETA. The small motor in my jacket sleeve buzzes and the light comes on when I get a text or phone call.
Right now, the Jacquard Jacket doesn’t do much more than that. You can change tracks in your music with a swipe, or to count things like the miles you ride or the birds you see on your way home. The jacket was designed with bike commuters in mind, and the functionality follows suit. “This jacket doesn’t need to do everything,” says Paul Dillinger, Levi’s VP of Innovation. Neither he nor Levi’s care about “wearables.” Instead, Dillinger wants to make this the perfect jacket for bicyclists: There’s a longer, butt-crack covering back; storm cuffs that keep out the whipping wind; and the connected gestures that make it easier and safer to change your music or get directions on the road.
Of course, connectivity comes with some compromises. You’ll have to take off the tag and charge it via USB about every two weeks if you wear it just to commute, or every few days if you’re the all-denim-all-day type. The left cuff is noticeably heavier and stiffer than the right, thanks to all the electronics inside. Also, PSA: You can’t wash the tag. On the plus side, if the battery dies, your jacket still does a good job being a jacket. For the most part, nobody would even notice the difference.
OK, so tapping on your wrist won’t exactly revolutionize bike commuting. You can ride with your phone in your pocket and voice navigation on already, or with a handlebar nav gadget. But the Jacquard Jacket is just the beginning for this technology, which began as a project within Google’s ATAP research division to find a way to integrate conductive yarn into clothes without needing new equipment or processes. Google plans to work with many other companies on many other garments; Levi’s, which knows denim inside and out, made for an ideal first partner.
In this jacket, the yarn is remarkably sensitive, even to varying levels of pressure, yet hardly ever registered false positives. Someday, when all the junk in that tag—the battery, the wireless radios—shrinks enough to embed in the seams or pockets of a jacket like this one, a “smart” jacket could truly look and work no differently from any other.
The Jacquard idea deals with wearables in the truest sense. Poupyrev wants to seamlessly integrate technology with the things you already use and wear—without changing how they’re made, how you care for them, or how you use them. His yarn won’t replace everything in your smartphone, but the Jacquard Jacket could free your hands and eyes to focus on the road in front of you. As the software improves, your taps and swipes could engineer more and more complicated things. If you’re wearing headphones, maybe Siri and your left arm can control most of the things in your life.
Right now, Poupyrev and Dillinger say they’re looking for more feedback. They want to know what people do with the jacket, and what they wish it could do. It goes on sale for $350 in a couple of high-end clothing stores on September 27, before hitting Levi’s stores and website on October 2. It may not make you look as tech-savvy as the latest Apple gear, but it’ll surely win some fans in the bike lane.