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Here’s Why Levi’s and Google Geared Their First Product Toward Urban Bikers

Levi's Commuter trucker jacket Project Jacquard

When Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group announced iconic American brand Levi’s as the first official partner of its Project Jacquard endeavor, most people assumed jeans would be their first product.

But at the tech giant’s annual I/O developer conference last week, a Jacquard-enabled jacket debuted: a trucker style that’s part of the brand’s “commuter” collection of clothes designed for urban cyclists.

“For us as a brand there had to be a need, a problem to be solved. This was the solution that came out of it,” explained Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., speaking Tuesday at Wear Conference (May 24-26) in Boston. “A garment that can respond to social media buzz is interesting, but one that can help you ride a bike safely is necessary. We didn’t want to take on a project that seemed nifty and cute.”

For the unfamiliar, Project Jacquard is a textile innovation that makes it possible to weave conductive yarns into fabric using standard, industrial looms. Levi’s Jacquard-enabled trucker jacket features a swatch of this smart fabric on one sleeve—it looks like a subtle flaw—a touchpad of sorts that’s powered by a dongle disguised to look like the snaps on the rest of the garment, while a smartphone app can be configured so that a simple gesture can answer a call, play music or access directions.

“Creating a garment which only does one thing feels gimmicky or at some point gets boring. We decided that’s not going to be the case with this jacket,” Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead at Google ATAP, said. “The jacket is going to be a blank canvas where the wearer can assign the functionality that they want, if one day you want to use it for navigation and controlling music and the next day use it to control your GoPro camera. The idea is to start thinking about wearables as a garment that’s giving access to almost critical functions you would like to use.”

And there’s a reason why they chose the commuter collection to kick things off.

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“[Since it launched in 2011] it’s been about purposeful design specifically for the needs of urban cyclists,” Dillinger said, noting reflective trims on cuffs, pockets built to hold bike locks. “It’s always been about smart modifications to existing forms to service this consumer. We needed that focus.”

Pointing out that if Google ATAP and Levi’s had just applied Jacquard’s technology to a regular product, he said it wouldn’t have solved a real problem.

“The urban cyclist commuter assortment gave us the focus we needed to tell us that this is something worth doing,” he continued. “If you just create a woven tactile interface for everything it’s really for nothing.”

Plus, in addition to adding value to an existing consumer base, how the jacket is received once it launches at retail and the real-time user data that will follow will determine what the technology could be applied to in the future.

“What abilities are being used the most? The what is going to give a strong indication of the next,” Dillinger said. “It will be guided by the appetites of the users based on how they’re engaging with it.”

The collaborators said they are ready to manufacture and the Jacquard-enabled trucker jacket is slated to hit stores in Spring 2017. No pricing details have been revealed, but Dillinger said it will be within the MSRP range of the brand’s other jackets.