Google wants to bring touchscreen controls to your clothing

Google's experimental hardware division talks smart textiles, and controlling them just by the touch of your hand.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Google developed tiny radar-based sensors that respond to gestures of your hand. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- When you say the word "wearable," Google wants to broaden the scope of what comes to mind.

Sure, it means smartwatches and eyewear, but the company wants to go even simpler than that: t-shirts, pants, socks -- basically anything made of cloth. To do that, the company on Friday introduced new initiatives called Project Soli and Project Jacquard, aimed at reimagining touch gestures for devices and developing smart textiles.

The idea for Soli is that the way we control our phones -- by touching, tapping and swiping -- can be applied to other things. To do that, Google developed small, radar-based sensors that respond to hand movements.

"Your hand can be a complete, self-contained interface control," said Ivan Poupyrev, who leads the projects for Google's Advanced Technology and Projects, or ATAP, division. "It's always with you." That technology could be applied to small screens like smartwatches.

Google Soli chips use radar to try and improve gesture technology. James Martin/CNET

Poupyrev was speaking Friday at Google's annual I/O conference for software developers here. To drive the point home, he held his hand a few inches above the smartwatch he was wearing, and rubbed his index finger and thumb together to change the time setting on the watch.

The company also introduced its plan to make smart garments. For Project Jacquard, Google developed conductive yarns that make it possible to weave fabrics that respond to touch and gestures. Sensor grids can also be woven throughout textiles to create large, interactive surfaces, according to Google. The company is partnering with fashion brand Levi's on the project. Google plans to work the technology into clothes first, but the possibilities go way beyond that.

The initiatives come as Google continues to expand the scope of its products beyond its juggernaut search engine. Its search and advertising business is still the most dominant in the world, making more than $50 billion a year. But as the Internet evolves, CEO Larry Page has been looking to where future revenue streams will come from.

The company especially wants to make a big push in infusing its software into every aspect of consumers' lives. Google's software already powers everything from smartphones to TVs to car dashboards. On Thursday, the company announced a new project called Brillo with the aim of being the software platform that powers every disparate device in the so-called Internet of Things, a catch-all phrase meaning any and every device outfitted with sensors and designed to talk to one another, everything from blenders to baby toys and thermostats.

Internet-connected garments certainly fall in that category. But smart clothing isn't new. Other companies have tried out Internet-connected garments. Last May, Intel announced a smart shirt made from conductive fibers that measure your heart rate and send information to your smartphone. Another company, Montreal-based OMsignal, makes sensor-packed clothes that can track your vital signs.

Project Jacquard is Google's attempt to make smart clothes with interactive grid surfaces. James Martin/CNET

It's all in a day's work for ATAP, Google's answer to DARPA, the federal government's technology and research arm. The division is run by Regina Dugan, formerly the head of DARPA, and is responsible for some of Google's most experimental initiatives. Those include Ara, a project that aims to let consumers build their own smartphones out of mix-and-match components that snap together like Lego bricks. Another project, called Tango, is focused on 3D mapping, which would let a device map out the layout of a room.

ATAP also operates on much tighter timelines than the rest of the company. Projects only have two years with ATAP before they are scrapped, extended or moved to another part of Google. The idea is for the teams to move with more urgency.

"It's innovation in the open, on steroids," said Dugan.

Watch this: Google's future fabric and gesture radar for wearables