Google’s Jacquard tech is making the entire world smart, one jacket, t-shirt, shoe at a time

In this episode of TechFirst we chat with Google director of engineering Ivan Poupyrev. He’s making the world smart, starting with clothing (we buy 150 billion items of clothing a year, according to one estimate) released with Google’s Jacquard technology.

That’s going to help us all move beyond screens and make technology ambient in our lives, not central, he believes.

But the vision extends beyond clothing to every object in our worlds. Join this chat to see what Poupyrev is working on, and how he sees the world in 10 years.

Scroll down for full audio, video and a transcript.

Check out the Forbes story here …

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.) 

John Koetsier: Can everything be smart? And can the world itself be an interface to our technology? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

So, computing today largely means screens, right? Keyboards, mice, maybe touch in some circumstances — a lot of circumstances where we carry our phones with us, of course. And in a lot of cases, as well, voice. But what if every surface around us was smart? Especially, maybe the clothes that you wear?

To explore the future of smart clothing and smart matter, we’re chatting with Google director of engineering, Ivan Poupyrev. Welcome, Ivan! 

Ivan Poupyrev: Thank you. Great to be on your program. 

John Koetsier: Hey, and if other people are wondering, this is kind of a déja vu — we’ve talked before, you and I have chatted before — we had to redo this. We had some audio issues, but happy to do it right now. Thank you for coming back and chatting about this. Now you’re on a 20-year mission. It’s a long journey for you. You’ve been working on this for a long time. You’re trying to make the world smart, maybe interactive. What’s your goal? 

Ivan Poupyrev: Well, I believe it’s the natural evolution of interfaces and technology. I know, perhaps a famous quote, Arthur Clarke once postulated that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is sort of indistinguishable from magic.’ And what’s magic?

Magic is when things happen by themselves, you know, when you don’t see the controls and buttons and sliders; when it just happens on its own under your command or your thought. This sort of vision, I think, a lot of technologies in the future is hoping to happen with the technology, so we don’t have to work so hard to make it work, right? So it becomes invisible and magical. 

John Koetsier: You know, there’s a great example of that, and that’s your TED talk. And it’s pretty funny ’cause I watched your TED talk, and you’re going through your slides and you’re chatting, and there’s no obvious clicker — there’s no remote control in your hand which most people have and they press — and just, you know, kind of every slide you kind of brushed your sleeve. You kind of just touched it a little bit and brushed your hand down there.

And I was wondering, how long did it take for the audience to clue in that that action that you were making was actually making your slides advance?

Ivan Poupyrev: You know, it took them a while. I think some of the people started noticing; I could see this kind of glints of the 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.

And it was an interesting experience, because what it allows me to do is to use my hand as I’m presenting — not to hold the clicker, not to press the button. And, you know, hands — it’s such a natural medium of communication when we talk. We gesture when we talk, and it’s really liberating not to use these clickers. And for me as a presenter, it was a very good experience. I think for my audience it was also a special experience, because I didn’t have to do this every time I wanted to change slides.

So overall, it was magical. It was magical… 

John Koetsier: A little bit magic, right? Because I mean, you’ve got the clicker and then it doesn’t work, so you kind of aim, you kind of point, you hold it—

Ivan Poupyrev: [crosstalk] You know you point it at somewhere, and if I get worried and try to find it, then there’s like all these— 

John Koetsier: Or, as I’ve done multiple times — thankfully not recently, because we’re not moving around in person and going to conferences — you push it the wrong way then you figure out which way do I go? Or you go too far…[chuckling].

Ivan Poupyrev: 100%, so that’s sort of … exactly.

The technology is in many cases, when we use technology, the interaction, the interface, you still have this barrier between us and what we want to happen, right? Making this barrier more transparent; making this barrier a little bit more translucent, for lack of a better word, I think that’s what we’re looking for in this work. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Now, I kind of call that ambient, right? And there’s a sense that technology, or what we gain from technology, becomes more ambient as it kind of disappears into the woodwork, so to speak. So, like even a Google Home or an Amazon Alexa or something like that that you can just say, ‘Hey, I want some music,’ that becomes a little ambient.

What do we gain when our technology is more ambient rather than present and in front of our faces? 

Ivan Poupyrev: Well, I think there’s multiple reasons. Well, I mean, obviously one of the things we are getting, is that using technology should become easier. An example we used from the TED talk, and a small example of course, and it’s one example … but having technology more accessible, and not just when we sit in front of the table or in front of the desk, or when we have to look at the phone, but while we’re doing something else.

Having this technology more accessible while doing something else is one of the things which will become possible with this sort of indent philosophy behind designing normal design interactions.

We also believe that it will uncover new use cases, right? So, while one of the products we launched with, for example, with Adidas and EA is this little computer you put in your shoe and you go and play soccer — or football, depending on your country — and while you’re playing it measures on the background without you having to do anything. It measures some of the ground, how fast you run, how hard you kick, and then it connects to the internet and then updates your virtual team in FIFA mobile soccer game, right, on mobile.

So the more you play the real football, or real soccer, the better your virtual team becomes. Instead of mashing buttons on a screen and sitting on your couch, you can get out and play a game of football, and it’s going to make you also progress in the game.

So you’re killing two birds with one stone. 

John Koetsier: I love that. That’s amazing. That’s really interesting, because we’ve had technology like Pokémon GO from Niantic which came out of Google … and that got you out in the world with technology with a game. This is actually leveling up your virtual character with your actual human body and what you do. That’s amazing. I’m not sure my son would be happy — he’s leveled up his characters in a bunch of different games to like max levels on everything, but … [laughing] … that’s really interesting!

Ivan Poupyrev: It’s a lot of work doing it through the buttons, like you’re mashing the buttons the whole day to get through. And yeah, I think getting out and being able to do what you love and [at] the same time it progresses you in the game, that is amazing.

I think this is just an example where your real behaviors, your regular motion actual behaviours also can progress you or help you in your digital life — when your digital life and physical are coming together. I think that’s one of the amazing opportunities for us to build experiences and use cases which would be valuable and exciting. 

John Koetsier: Love it. Love it. Let’s talk about the technology a little bit. You’ve released a jacket — it’s the jacket that you were touching your sleeve to advance the slides. What’s the technology that’s built into there? How does it work? And what is it capable of doing? 

Ivan Poupyrev: Well, I think it’s important to remember that we did not build a garment, right? So Google is not in the business of making jackets. What we do is we work with partners.

In this particular case, it was a device company. In the case of the shoe, it was Adidas. In the case of the backpack, it was Samsonite. To create a platform, a technology component which anybody, any company in the future can take and add to their products using their factories; using their manufacturing capabilities, so that their product now can take advantage of the digital functionality.

Which in the case of, for example, mobile phones or smart watches, everybody takes for granted. But now we want to expand this green field of technology so anybody can go there and play there, right?

So, as any platform, it has multiple components. One of them is advanced sensors. In case of the jacket, it was textile built sensors, or a backpack. In case of shoes, slightly different sensors, but it’s expandable — we can add other sensors there. But these unique textile sensors which we built to make it easier to incorporate technology into things like jackets and soft materials — it doesn’t have to be a jacket, any textile will work — using the manufacturing facilities of that company, because we don’t want to make a jacket, as I said. And that of course is a small computer, a tiny kit which we often call ‘edge computer,’ which can be embedded in your product … and then control that experience, collect the data, and send it to the mobile phone app. And using the mobile phone app, you’d be able to configure your jacket to do what you want, right?

So 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. 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. 

John Koetsier: So it sounded like there’s two-way communication there, actually, because you can tell it something, but it can maybe vibrate or give you haptics or something to alert you to something going on as well?

Ivan Poupyrev: Absolutely. Return communication to the user to provide feedback is very, very important.

So we have a haptic feedback and visual feedback, very simple feedback, which you can use to assign communication events. Like for example, one ability for the jacket, it will assign a color when somebody is calling you. So there’s three people, you can choose who is most important for you, and when that person calls you, you get the vibration and it would be alerting you that person calls you.

Now I also use it, for example, when I have to make a public presentation — before, of course the COVID — when I have to make a public presentation or work an exhibition, I would assign somebody like from my family. When they call me, I know it’s important, and I would have a vibration like on one of my sleeves. I can finish my conversation, excuse myself, step back and call them back. But if somebody’s calling me to sell me a — I don’t know, a cruise or something, I don’t care, right? I don’t even get this notification.

So your things you wear are becoming sort of the interface with [the] thing which is most important. This is like your second visual skin and when you feel something with skin, you know that’s important that you need to take care of that. 

John Koetsier: Love it.

Ivan Poupyrev: It’s a very different way to think about interaction in this way, because right now, if you think about our devices as a Swiss knife, right, which can do a lot of things … then becoming a Swiss knife you’d have too many blades, right? You’d get lost in all this functionality and I get messages all the time from all the sort of new services and stuff.

So, simplicity is not bad. 

John Koetsier: Now I’m guessing that little computer that goes in your sleeve or something like that is underneath and you see the light through the fabric, is that correct? You’re not wearing it and blinking lights all over the place to everybody. 

Ivan Poupyrev: That’s a very good comment. Yes, so they have a very small — it blinks when you slide it in your cuff. You can still see it popping out from the side of the cuff, and it slightly blinks to indicate somebody’s calling.

But what we also found out through our experiments and through our practices, is that haptic feedback is way more important. Because you don’t really [go] walking around looking at your jacket and waiting for it to blink. It just doesn’t work this way [crosstalk & laughter].

John Koetsier: Yes … it’s the new looking at your watch. 

Ivan Poupyrev: What we discovered, that the haptic feedback slightly buzzing you on the cuff is the main cue for you to know something happened and you need to pay attention. Then you look quickly at your cuff, there’s the color would be, you could remember that this is — I don’t know, somebody’s calling me, or I left my phone behind me, or something like that.

John Koetsier: Yes. Very good. Very good. Now, what do you do? You’ve got that component that works with the jacket from Levi’s, the jacket from whoever or something like that. Now let’s say I have three jackets … do I buy three computers? Do I slide it in a slot? Do I remove the little device? How’s that work? 

Ivan Poupyrev: Well, I should say that we are — I mean, this is a computer I’m talking about. This is very, that’s the size of it — quite a small one, right? Theoretically, you could have three of them. At least they are inexpensive and you can switch between them if you want.

But we believe that maybe just moving from one product to another is one approach. So you can plug it in the jacket. You can plug in your backpack, or you can have three of them. They have become really inexpensive and really easy to change. We still don’t know, right? We are in early days of the world where screens are becoming connected.

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Ivan Poupyrev: So it’s too early to say how things are going to develop. You know, if you remember the early days of the web or of the mobile phones, who knew we were going to have things like Facebook or Google search. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ivan Poupyrev: I remember it was very different, right? So I believe that we’re also the beginning of the journey here in how technology is going to develop.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about that journey a little bit, and you mentioned it was inexpensive. What kind of price are we talking about? Let’s say I have a jacket that’s compatible but I don’t have a little computer … what are we talking about here? Are we talking $10? Are we talking $100? What’s the price there and where do you see that price going over the next, I dunno, five years? 

Ivan Poupyrev: Well, I think, for example, I did this insert to the shoe … with our little computer is about — I haven’t checked recently — I think it’s about $40 or $50, right?

John Koetsier: Okay.

 Ivan Poupyrev: So it’s very, depending on the people’s income, it’s not very expensive, right? So anybody can afford it.

A jacket, again, speaking from my memories … a jacket, full price when it was on sale was about $160, $170. So it’s staying within the range of regular prices you’d buy for a piece of, you know, nice piece of apparel, right? I mean, no real device has been in [the] jacket, you know,  it’s a nice piece of clothing.

John Koetsier: Nice.

Ivan Poupyrev: The initial core prices were much higher of course. So the first jacket was about $300 when we first went to build. And this shows how the technology, as it goes at scale, prices by definition start decreasing, right? Because as it’s kicking in certain volumes you can start bringing the price down, but also because we learn how to build it. The cost of building this product, a lot of this of course was going because our production techniques we work with device on video were not as well understood as now. You know, it’s again, it’s a new industry and we’re learning as we go. 

John Koetsier: Yep. Yeah. What’s the syntax you can use to communicate with this device? So, when I saw you in the TED talk, you were stroking your sleeve essentially to move to the next slide.

Does it also understand a tap? Is there pressure? Like, what’s the variability in the syntax you can use to communicate with the device? 

Ivan Poupyrev: That’s a very good question.

So, right now, these are [the] very first products we’ve built. We focused on gestures. And the reason we used gestures, pass gestures, is because our hypothesis was that people were already familiar with touching a screen; they were already familiar with things like scrolling and swiping on the touch screen. So applying this same language to clothing felt to us a very, easier step to expand this idea that anything can become touch sensitive; anything can become interactive. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. 

Ivan Poupyrev: But it doesn’t have to be, right? It doesn’t have to be. I think just like with any technology when it starts developing, you know, our platform supports a variety of sensors. And the new gestures can be developed, and the new ways to deduct we felt about proximity, as your hand approaches the cuff something happens.

We thought about three dimensional gestures. We thought about voice control. We thought about gaze control. You know, humans have a variety of channels of communication, so it’s yet to be seen what will be the best one. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Ivan Poupyrev: You always have to go step by step, right? So our initial approach was to do something familiar, but different. It’s the same — similar, but different, right? So starting with gestures, but in [a] new context. And we thought that would be [an] easier method and easier path for this technology to be understood by our consumers. 

John Koetsier: That makes a lot of sense. One of the things that comes to mind is some technology that we’ve seen in a variety of smartphone platforms, and I think that we’ve seen it in Google smartphones as well, Pixel smartphones — at least as a project, and I’m not sure that it’s in there as a full-on release product — but it basically uses sound, ultrasonic waves, to sense proximity and motion, and has some pretty good level of control as you go.

But I totally see how that’s like a follow-on, right? Because the easiest, the most natural is to touch, or to tap, or to stroke, or whatever. 

Ivan Poupyrev: Exactly.

John Koetsier:  And you don’t always know, how close do I need to be to make my gesture? Will it recognize three fingers versus two? And you can get a very complex language going, right, which is probably too early — too much for an early product. 

Ivan Poupyrev: I think there’s kind of a green field of how you add kind of this extra interaction to everyday things. I do agree that touch felt like a very natural first step, but I think it’s, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a final step. I think we will continue exploration and I see a lot of growing interest around the industry, and academia, and researchers, and designers, and startups — a lot of interest to explore these new forms of communication, which, you know, removes the barrier, as we talked before, between what you want to do … between the intent and the result; between intent and action. How could we make it as [inaudible]?  

John Koetsier: Yes. Yeah. It’s interesting. I believe it was about a month ago, I was chatting with Wiliot, and they make Bluetooth tags, and they harvest ambient energy from radio waves, use that in the moment … and their vision is to take that down to literally pennies per tag and put that almost everywhere.

Question for you is: should every piece of our clothing be smart? 

Ivan Poupyrev: If you ask me as a technologist— [crosstalk

John Koetsier: Haha, yes, first as a technologist. 

Ivan Poupyrev: You know, who is excited about the future of computing and excited about a future of technology, then my answer will be yes, of course. It’s going to be — 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.

So by creating technologies and manufacturing techniques and distribution techniques, which allows to make our things benefit technology, I’m a hundred percent supportive for that. But if I think about it as a customer, or more the designer, I also understand that obviously not everywhere … it doesn’t work everywhere, right? So you have to be very — ’cause I would say maybe judgmental is the wrong word, but a little thoughtful — thoughtful about where we breed technology, right? So have to be this optimism kind of coupled with caution and careful thinking, design thinking about where it makes sense, where it doesn’t make sense, and deeply thinking why we need to be adding this technology.

John Koetsier: Yes. It is really interesting to think about if every piece of clothing was intelligent, right? I mean, because your pants might tell you, ‘Hey, I don’t go with that shirt.’ [laughter

Ivan Poupyrev: That’s right.

John Koetsier: The colour is wrong, it doesn’t fit, or my jacket might say, ‘Hey, actually, there’s wind chill today, wear something else with that.’ Or my shoes might say, ‘You haven’t washed me in like a year. What is your problem?’ 

Ivan Poupyrev: That’s right. What is your problem? Exactly. Good question … that happens. But I think [there are also] other cases, right.

For example, we’re now working quite a little bit with the disability community, and particularly with people with motor function disabilities who cannot use their hands as easily as people who don’t have disabilities. So giving them an easy way to perform a simple function on the phone, straight from the garment, is something we got very strong feedback about, right? 

John Koetsier: Wow. Wow.

Ivan Poupyrev: So there’s a broad opportunity  to — it’s also a question of inclusiveness, right? I would want to say.

John Koetsier: Yes. And that’s beyond the disabled community as well. My mom is 85 and I was trying to do remote tech support with her on how to navigate her phone last night. And she has an iPhone 6 and I was saying, ‘Can you press the home button?’ And she said, ‘There isn’t a button. There’s no button.’

And so I could not explain where the home button was or what it looked like or where to press it or anything like that. That was a real challenge, but if there was something that she could touch, or a gesture she could make on her sleeve … big difference. 

Ivan Poupyrev: That’s right. Exactly. I think, I agree with that. There is more space to be more inclusive with technologies, because, particularly with phones and all this computing technology, because we’re trying to make actually one that fits all, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Ivan Poupyrev: And it comes from the very natural limitations of manufacturing cycle, right, the costs and scaling. And so you kind of have to standardize things. But we are all different, you know, humans are all different.

What’s interesting is the apparel industry understand[s] it and knows how to be scalable within these differences. How many styles of clothing are there? How many sizes of clothing are there? Everything comes in several sizes, so they can do that. They can give us variety. We’re not all wearing black all the time, for example, right?

So there’s a choice. There’s much less in technology, but clothing allows us to address individual differences — in our preferences, but also in our abilities. You know, bringing technology, combining these things with technology allows probably increased inclusivity of technology, reflects people’s differences. So that’s another big, big reason behind it. 

John Koetsier: Very good. Okay. About to come to a close here, and I want to ask you to project yourself forward, maybe that’s five years, let’s say a decade.

What do you want to see in terms of smart clothing in the world? You’re 10 years out in the future, let’s say you’re tremendously successful with what you’re doing at Google and others do it as well, and many people are partnering with the platform. What does the world look like in 10 years in terms of smart clothing?

Ivan Poupyrev:  What I think is important, is that we go beyond clothing, right? So the platform, again, our vision is not just jackets and shoes — it’s a starting point, which is  interesting, but a starting point. We really hope to expand beyond that.

We really hope that many things around us become augmented and it gives access to technology through them. And truly that’s kind of 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, and you’re touching that … but everything would become sort of inhabited by technology.

And they’re spending more time using that than say, screens and staring into screens and tapping on the keyboard. So that’s kind of my hope. My hope is not necessarily more things. My hope is to kind of change our behavior, liberate us from drudgery of digital technology. This sort of, kind of like changes the world, in other words. 

John Koetsier: Excellent.

Ivan Poupyrev:  But through the way to helping people to change their behaviors. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Well, I want to thank you for spending some time with us on TechFirst and doing it times two — and I think we got it this time. Thank you so much for that. I really appreciate your time. 

Ivan Poupyrev: Thank you.

John Koetsier: For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst as well. My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the show. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this in about a week at The full video is always on my YouTube channel, and the story at Forbes will come out shortly after the transcript. Thanks for joining. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst. 

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