This Tic-Tac-Sized Computer Can Turn Almost Anything Into a Smart Device

"We’re building a new kind of computer, an invisible computer."

Screens and touch displays are how we access information and connect with loved ones on the other side of the world. Digital tools like keyboards and mice tend to be more tied to our vocation: how we write the lines of code or words that earn us our paycheck. Ivan Poupyrev, the director of engineering at Google’s Advanced Technology and Products division, wants to rewrite this binary of modern-day technology with a computer the size of a breath mint.

The driving force behind his vision is the fact that computers dominate a large part of our professional and personal lives, yet they remain confined to a handful of gadgets whose confines limits their potential. His end goal is to transform all the objets we interact with on a daily bases, from our work desks to our shoes, into their own unique computer interfaces.

Poupyrev elaborated on this vision during a 20-minute Ted Talk presented on Thursday as part of Ted’s annual Ted Conference hosted in Vancouver. In his speech, Poupyrev explained that by giving tailors, craftspeople, and artisans access to tiny computers, they could transform traditional tools of the trade into new kinds of hardware and computers that have never been imagined before. After all, what do tailors know about writing code, and what do coders know about sizing a perfect fit?

ted 2019 google project jacquard

“On the back, [the computer has] a few electrodes so when you plug it into two different things the device will recognize where you plugged it in and reconfigure itself to enable specific functionality,” he explained “We would like to give this device to makers of things people who make your clothes or furniture so they can use it like a button or a zipper.”

This ongoing research is all part of Google’s Project Jacquard a venture founded by Poupyrev in 2014 that started off as an attempt to weave technology into fabric. In 2017, it partnered with Levi’s to create the world’s first smart jacket that Poupyrev used to control his slide show during the Ted Talk. The next step, he says, is to make it possible for designers everywhere to recreate what Google did with Levi’s.

The idea is to give craftspeople the tools they need to incorporate digital services to the items they’re already making. Poupyrev made it clear that he doesn’t want fundamentally change tried and tested items, like a jacket, into a computer first, and an article of clothing second. He wants to imbue everyday items with digital functionality.

ted 2019 project jacquard

In its final form, Poupyrev envisions clothing, furniture, and accessories that are all connected to the cloud, each providing their own, specialized functionality. Users will interact with screens using their sleeves and pause their music by tapping their glasses. Step trackers will live in our shoes, translators will live in our ears, and medicinal nano-robots could be injected into our blood streams. The very notion of a computer will radically change as little computers get placed into everything.

“This could allow makers to image and create a new world where things are connected and we don’t need keyboards, screens, or mice to interact with computers,” he said. “I’ve been working on this for 20 years and as it’s taken shape I’m realizing that we’re not building an interface. We’re building a a new kind of computer, an invisible computer.”

Media via TED 2019, Project Jacquard / Google, TED 2019 / Ivan Poupyrev