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TECH SPACE
Google puts virtual reality in reach with cardboard
By Glenn CHAPMAN
San Francisco (AFP) May 29, 2015


Google working with Levi Strauss to make smart clothes
San Francisco (AFP) May 30, 2015 - Google announced Friday that it is working with iconic US jean maker Levi Strauss to make clothing from specially woven fabric with touch-screen control capabilities.

The Internet titan used its annual developers conference in San Francisco to reveal its so-called Project Jacquard and to spotlight Levi Strauss as its first partner.

Named after a Frenchman who invented a type of loom, Project Jacquard is in the hands of a small Google team called Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), which is different from the Google (x) lab that developes big-vision innovations such as self-driving cars.

"We are enabling interactive textiles," Emre Karagozler of ATAP said as the smart fabric was shown off in an area set up to look like cloth coming out of a loom.

"We do it by weaving conductive threads into fabric."

The special threads can be woven into a wide array of fabrics, and be made to visually stand out or go unnoticed depending on designers' wishes.

Conductivity can be limited to desired parts of fabric or spread across entire cloth.

"It is stretchable; it is washable," Karagozler said as people controlled lights or computer screens with finger strokes on a blue cloth covering a table in the display area behind him.

"It is just like normal fabric."

Project Jacquard makes it possible to weave touch and gesture interactivity into any textile using standard, industrial looms, according to Google.

Anything involving fabric, from suits or dresses to furniture or carpet, could potentially have computer touch-pad style control capabilities woven.

Conductive yarn is connected to tiny circuits, no bigger than jacket buttons, with miniaturized electronics that can use algorithms to recognize touches or swipes, ATAP said.

The data can be sent wirelessly to smartphones or other devices, enabling actions such as making phone calls or sending messages with brushes of fabric.

"In our hyper-digital world, people constantly struggle to be physically present in their environment while maintaining a digital connection," said Levi Straus's head of global product innovation Paul Dillinger, who took part in a Google presentation at the gathering.

"The work that Google and Levi's are embarking upon with Project Jacquard delivers an entirely new value to consumers with apparel that is emotional, aspirational and functional."

Google said this week one of its least expensive innovations -- virtual reality headgear made of cardboard -- has become a huge hit.

And the tech giant said it has a new version of its cardboard gadget, which consumers can buy for as little as $4.

Playfully named Google Cardboard debuted ast year at the Internet giant's annual developers conference.

One simply folds the cardboard into goggles of a sort that have eye holes opening into a slot designed to hold smartphones that serve as display screens for immersive videos.

"It took off; people keep finding new and creative uses of Google Cardboard virtual reality," vice president of product management Clay Bavor said at a Google I/O developers gathering concluding on Friday.

"One guy even proposed to his girlfriend using Google Cardboard. I'm not sure how that worked, but I hope she said yes."

Bavor introduced a second-generation version of Cardboard that required less folding and was adapted to the popularity of large-screen smartphones.

A Cardboard software kit works with Apple or Android smartphones, meaning they can be used as screens in the viewers, which can be had for just a few dollars.

Hundreds of applications have been created to work with Cardboard, taking advantage of position-sensing capabilities in smartphones to give wearers a sense of looking around in virtual environments while turning their heads.

- Virtual field trips -

Bavor announced availability of an "Expeditions" version of Cardboard designed to let teachers take students on virtual field trips to places such as The Great Wall of China; undersea reefs, or Versailles.

Students wear Cardboard viewers while teachers using tablet computers guide virtual reality (VR) outings, according to Bavor's presentation.

"It lets teachers take classed on field trips to anywhere," Bavor said. "Hundreds of classes around the world have already gone on expeditions."

He said that Google is working with GoPro on a specialized camera rig and accompanying system for capturing video in 360-degrees and weaving the imagery into VR presentations.

Google-owned video sharing service YouTube will support VR videos people will be able to view using smartphones and Cardboard.

"Google is definitely democratizing virtual reality more than, say, Facebook," Current Analysis research director Avi Greengart told AFP at the gathering.

"It is very clever of Google to almost back into it by giving people something at almost no cost."

The chief executive of Facebook-owned VR head gear company Oculus Rift went on record this week estimating that getting going from the ground up with one of its systems could cost about $1,500 when it makes its market debut.

Brendan Iribe of Oculus was at a Code technology conference in California when he gave the ballpark figure, which included the cost of a computer with the processing power needed for rich, immersive, seamless video graphics.

Oculus, acquired by Facebook last year in a deal valued about $2 billion, has announced plans to begin shipping headsets to consumers early next year.

The headset, designed for immersive gaming and other applications, has built a strong following among developers and has won praise from analysts for limiting the motion sickness which affects users of VR gear.

"Virtual reality is going to transform gaming, film, entertainment, communication, and much more," Oculus said when revealing launch timing.

Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg has described buying Oculus as a long-term bet that making the social network's offerings more immersive would pay off in the future, enabling members to sort of "teleport" to distant places.

"VR will definitely have a place in gaming; whether it will have a place in general computing is anyone's guess," Greengart said.

gc/rl

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