Roaming around the floor of Google I/O we got our hands on one of the prototypes from ATAP, Google's DARPA-like experimental lab. It's called Project Jacquard, and it's nice n' soft. It's a fabric that can control your phone.
Jacquard is about weaving touch sensor technology into fabrics. Using conductive thread it's possible to weave a mesh that looks not unlike the matrix of sensors under your touchscreen. But because it's just simple thread it can be manufactured at scale and woven on industrial equipment. In other words they should be able to make a lot of it, cheaply and easily. While you can see the grid pattern of the touch sensor in the photo up top, we were told that it can be made to be totally seamless, so you don't even know it's there.
In their demo area ATAP had some woven into a tablecloth that was connected to different devices. It worked basically just like a touchpad. On a computer screen you could see a visualisation of what the fabric perceived.
It could sense multiple fingers dragging, tapping, swiping, and it even did a good job sensing different levels of pressure. I was also able to tap to turn on some Philips Hue bulbs.
Swiping up/down adjusted the brightness, and swiping left and right changed the bulbs' colours. You can use it to play/pause/skip tracks on your phone's music player.
They said it might even be possible to make a whole shirt out of the stuff, where the shirt acts as a micro-controller with various sensors (accelerometers, gyroscopes, pressure sensors, heart rate monitors, etc) attached.
While they told us us that to start out the primary goal is to control smartphones with it, one could imagine some fun scenarios. A swipable pillow on your couch to adjust lighting or your entertainment system. A robot teddy bear that responds to your kid's touch. A bed sheet that acts as an sleep (or sex) tracker. Pants that could control your phone — you could literally butt-dial someone!