Levi’s new Bluetooth-connected jacket seems both cool and weird

It's smart, but is it smart?

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Levi's Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google
Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google Levi’s

Off the cuff, the new smart jacket forthcoming from Levi’s—which has Google technology literally woven into it—appears to be both fascinating and a little puzzling.

The clothing is intriguing because it incorporates touch control right into the jacket’s sleeve, and yet is slightly baffling because—well, did you wake up this morning hoping for a jacket that connects to Bluetooth? But the product is actually intended for a very niche audience: urban bicyclists who want a quick, light way to interact with their smartphone. In this case, that interaction happens literally though the fabric of the jacket. In the tapestry of different ways that people relate to technology, that’s pretty cool.

It works by incorporating conductive threads into the left sleeve of the Levi’s denim jacket, which sense your touch; a removable tag hosts the electronics that make it connect to your phone. Ultimately, the tech allows an earbud-wearing commuter donning the jacket—the garment is officially known as the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket with Jacquard by Google—to reach over and tap their left sleeve and, say, kick off a playlist.

“What’s most exciting about [the jacket], is that we’re finally seeing a commercial product” incorporating technology like this, says Chris Harrison, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the director of the Future Interfaces Group.

That’s because the idea of using fabric as a touch input mechanism dates back to years ago, Harrison points out—an early paper on the topic called “‘Fabric Computing Interfaces” was published in 1998. And he says positioning the jacket within a specific niche and focusing on lightweight interactions is a good move by Levi’s and Google.

“I don’t think it needs to have broad appeal,” Harrison says. “You have to start specialized with the early adopters, with any new technology, and fan out from there.”

As for those conductive threads woven into the jacket, that kind of general technology is similar to the way the screen on your smartphone works, he explains: it relies on a process called capacitive coupling that allows the system to know where your finger is positioned on the surface. In this case, the surface just happens to be the sleeve of a classic jacket.

The fact that fabric is being used as a touch surface is promising, Harrison says, simply because the material offers something that a small smartwatch screen can’t.

“I think the most exciting thing about fabric is that there’s a lot of it,” he says. “It’s not just that it’s soft and bendy and that we wear it, but it gives you a lot of surface area.”

While you obviously wouldn’t want to try to do something complex using your jacket sleeve, it’s a pretty good input mechanism for simple things keyed in with broad gestures. This jacket, he says, is a baby step in that direction. (Or perhaps just one small stitch? The beginning of a longer thread? Sorry.)

Ultimately, Harrison is interested in how devices like this jacket could make our interactions with technology even lighter and faster in the near future, making a multi-second glance at a smartwatch seem achingly long in comparison.

“I think the implications of weaving—pun intended, I guess—computation into your everyday lives is really powerful,” he adds.

According to Levi’s, the jacket—which has been shown off at SXSW and garnered good impression from outlets like the Verge and Engadget—will go on sale this fall at a cost of about $350.