Skip to Content

Robot Abuses Google’s Smart Textiles to See How Much They Can Take

Google’s Project Jacquard employs a robot to help figure out how well its smart textiles will work over time.
April 21, 2016

Google is relying on a beefy robotic arm to help it test out the reliability of the interactive fabrics it’s making as part of a skunkworks project that can bring gesture and touch recognition to everything from jackets to teddy bears.

Unveiled last spring, Project Jacquard is creating textiles woven with grids of conductive yarns that are made with typical manufacturing methods—the hope is to make “smart” clothing, furniture, toys, and other fabric-covered items that are connected to electronics but are also affordable and durable (see “Google Wants You to Control Your Gadgets with Finger Gestures, Conductive Clothing”).

There have been plenty of connected textiles in the past, but most of them have been limited to things like fitness apparel and fashion-forward art projects. So before bringing its conductive fabric to the average person’s shirt or jeans, the people behind Project Jacquard want to figure out how well they can expect it to hold up over time, and how well it recognizes gestures.

Project Jacquard interactive fabric can be connected to small electronic components; the idea is that when you perform a gesture on the fabric it can then be sent wirelessly to a phone or other gadget.

As they describe in a research paper that will be presented at a computer-human interaction conference in May, they used a robotic arm from industrial robot maker KUKA Robotics to repeatedly swipe a piece of their fabric laid atop what they describe as a “flexible sponge foam to best simulate body flexibility.”

After 10 hours of swiping, Project Jacquard researchers determined a life span of three years and 200 days of usage for a swatch of the interactive fabric, assuming you swiped it 200 times per day, for a total of 12,000 swipes. At that rate, gesture recognition was slightly over 95 percent and the fabric wasn’t visibly damaged, the researchers report.  

Google’s Project Jacquard has been using a robotic arm to test its interactive fabric by swiping the textile over and over.

Researchers say they later had the robot arm perform another 30,000 swipes on the same fabric and still reported a gesture-recognition rate of over 95 percent.

The results aren’t as impressive with real people. Researchers say that in another experiment they attached patches of interactive fabric to a jacket sleeve and had a dozen people perform three gestures (swiping left, swiping right, and using a “hold” gesture) while standing, walking, and sitting. Under these conditions, which are a little closer to how you’d probably use the fabric in regular life, the gestures weren’t recognized nearly as easily: researchers report their overall rate of recognition was nearly 77 percent. Ivan Poupyrev, who leads Project Jacquard and coauthored the paper, says that this has improved significantly in more recent work.

This gridded piece of fabric shows how Google’s Project Jacquard weaves conductive yarn with standard yarn; it can then be attached to electronic components.

Ryan Robucci, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is working on a fabric-based sensor to help disabled people interact with gadgets via gestures, says gesture recognition is difficult because the person and the fabric can be moving, and, unlike a robotic arm, a person doesn’t always perform the correct gesture.

There are not yet any products publicly available that include Project Jacquard fabric, though clothing maker Levi Strauss, which is working with Google on the project, has said it plans to release a limited number of pairs of jeans with the technology this spring and more in the fall.

This story was updated on April 21 to include a response from Ivan Poupyrev.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

pig kidney transplant surgery
pig kidney transplant surgery

Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient

The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.

panpsychism concept
panpsychism concept

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious?

The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional
reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.