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Touch-sensitive fabric and tiny radar chips: hands-on with Google's ridiculous new tech

Get ready, wearables

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Every year there's some experimental station at Google I/O that has some kind of cool tech demo you didn't expect. This year, Google's skunkworks ATAP R&D division has two of them. They're called Project Jacquard and Project Soli, and if they're meant to do what I think they are, they're going to make interacting with wearables a whole lot better. And perhaps even invisible.

Let's start with Jacquard. That code name is the first clue — it's a reference to using technology to improve weaving. Pretty clever, actually, because what it amounts to is touch-sensitive fabric. A giant blue sheet of cloth is laid out on a table here and at various points there were either monitors or light bulbs or phones stationed next to it. There are tiny little instructions too: tap here, swipe here. The arrows on those instructions point to the touch-sensitive zones on the fabric. I'm not sure what makes it tick, but there are larger threads (and presumably other flexible electronics) sewn into those zones. When you tap, or swipe, or draw, it acts precisely like a touchscreen. It turns on the music, it draws a line on a screen, it changes the color of the Hue lights.

Next to it is Soli, which looks like a not-super-interesting children's science museum kind of set up. You wave your hand over a disk and you can watch the screens in front you display your hand's position and movement in space. It's essentially radar, and as I tried it, I basically thought "Huh, this is neat, but why should I care?"

Then I turned around and saw the size of the chip that was doing the work: less than an inch square. It was under glass at the end of a row of prototypes that started with a board near the size of a Monopoly box. A chip that small could be put into a phone or even something smaller.

One other neat trick for Soli? The sensor still works when something is covering it. At a demo station, the operator told me that it could still be accurate at detecting subtle hand movements, it just needed to be recalibrated. That suggests you could stash these underneath other objects, and still pick things up, though the piece of paper we were using was some thick paper card stock, making it hard to tell how far we could stretch that idea.

Put Jacquard and Soli next to each other and you start to see that maybe we don't have to be limited to touchscreens to interact with our gadgets. Maybe we can think about what they are and how we interact with them more broadly. It could be a big deal.

I'm telling you right now, if I get a touch-sensitive jacket, I'm making sure that the shoulders are supported. That way when I need to block somebody who's harassing me on Twitter, I will literally be able to brush that dirt off my shoulder.

ATAP's touch-sensitive fabric and radar photos