There is a (somewhat) classic episode of The Simpsons in which, for complicated reasons, Homer decides that Thomas Edison is his hero and he now wants to be an inventor. He talks to the local scientist, Professor Frink, and asks what it takes to invent something. Frink explains that you either have to invent something entirely new, or take two useful things and combine them into something that people need. With dawning joy, Homer seizes upon the latter: “Like Hamburger Earmuffs!”
It’s absurd, of course, but seems less so every year. Not the Hamburger Earmuffs; we’ll probably never really need those (or as Frink says, never be able to figure out “the pickle matrix”). But the combination of seemingly disparate things into a seamless technological whole is one of the hallmarks of our burgeoning era. “Heart monitor watch” or “personal assistant dashboard” are now unremarkable phrases, as might be, thanks to Google, “cell phone pants.” The rise of textile tech could be the next step in mobile; the question is whether it’s useful or if it’s just some hamburgers strapped to your head.
Textile Tech and Project Jacquard
Saying “cell phone pants” is a bit glib when discussing Google’s new venture, released last week at the I/O conference. Project Jacquard is about textile tech; that is, the weaving of technology into everyday fabrics, like clothes or blankets. This isn’t technology related to the item – it isn’t a blanket warmer or a shirt color-changer or anything like that. Rather, this is about connecting our fabrics to the Internet of Things to control our phones, appliances, and anything else. It is about bringing technology everywhere.
Named Project Jaquard, after the Frenchman who invented the automated loom and thus took weaving from a premodern and personal occupation to a massive industrial one, Google is working with major manufacturers like Levi’s to weave conductive strands of thread or yarn into normal fabrics that can be controlled by a touch or even swipe of the hand.
This is complex and we’ll get to the negatives, but first let’s look at the dream scenario here. Ideally, one day (soon!) you’ll be able to control everything through the barest interactions. Scrolling through songs or raising/lowering the volume is as simple as tapping the side of your leg. You can make a call or answer your phone with the same motion, connected to a Bluetooth or other hands-free device.
Moving back home, let’s imagine the tech-enabled blanket or armrest on the couch. You can run through Netflix, turn the TV on or off, raise the volume on the radio, or put on the slideshow of your wedding, all without fumbling with remotes or even moving your hands out of the blanket. It’s tech that is everywhere.
Pros and Cons of Textile Tech
Even while writing the above, I realized it sounds a bit like one of those cheesy infomercials that promises to solve a non-existent problem, like for an automated carrot peeler that shows dramatic black-and-white footage of people laboring to peel a carrot, with the strained and agonized faces rarely seen outside a Bergman film. Now, there’s a solution that seems more difficult than the normal act: don’t struggle to hit the remote! You can change the channel just by hitting the exact right part of the blanket you’re snuggled up in!
It does sound a bit ridiculous, both reductive and overly-complicated. It also evokes people doing elaborate pants-based maneuvers on the subway just to send a text. I can picture everyone looking like a third-base coach sending signs to the batter, an itching-powder ballet choreographed by a madman.
That’s the worst-case scenario, of course, arguing for the “this is needless” side. And ultimately, it may very well be. But it is neat to see what Google is doing. In a razor-sharp article for Bloomberg View, Virginia Postrel talks about Project Jacquard as less of an imposition of technology, like with Google Glass, but rather the disappearance of it into something both ubiquitous and unnoticeable.
The theory here is that, as we know, and are happy about, mobile tech isn’t going away. It will be integrated more and more into our lives, with wearables and the Internet of Things doing more than we ever thought possible. Everything will be connected. This can either be a huge burden, a constant din of devices and buttons and lights and confusing integration, or it can be easy, and the controls can be part of what we wear everyday. Using them can become second nature. It can be easy. In short, with linguistic euphony, it can be seamless.
That’s the best-case scenario for this, of course. We’re just at the start of textile tech, and if it is to be successful, there will certainly be a weird period where early adopters are laughed at. Don’t forget, though, that as recently as the turn of the century it was still fashionable to laugh at dopes walking around with cell phones – who did they have to talk to, anyway? Things can change quickly. At one point, don’t forget, no one wore jeans. Now we can’t live without them. The two might even be combined.