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Inside Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group

Steven Max Patterson | July 1, 2015
Using the playbook she brought from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Regina Dugan drives rapid technology innovation at Google’s ATAP group.

Cut from whole cloth

A second demonstration of a wearable product code-named Project Jacquard how to weave a multi-touch input panel like a mouse pad into regular cloth using existing textile industry's processes.  Now, multi-touch has been around since IBM first experimented with it in the 1960s, and it's now used in every touchpad and touch screen. No need for ATAP's high-powered R&D for that. Redesigning multi-touch so that it could be produced by the textile industry at scale, however, is right in ATAP's wheelhouse.

ATAP's Ivan Poupyrev described the route that began with hand weaving conductive yarns into cloth to make a prototype multi-touch panel. He stepped through the collaboration with textile industry partners to redesign the hand-made prototype so that it could be made in textile production plants using unmodified (legacy) spinning and weaving equipment.

The path to prove feasibility of Project Jacquard reached its destination when a multi-touch panel was woven into cloth in a textile factory that was then shipped to a London Saville Row tailor and sewn into a jacket. As conclusive proof, a telephone call on a smartphone was made with a swipe of the jacket sleeve.

Poupyrev made an important distinction that Project Jacquard demonstrated feasibility and not specific applications. Those he hoped would be engineered by software developers and tailored into fashion by designers creating new applications for soft e-textile computing. Poupyrev proved that if Google wanted to, it could turn over ATAP's design and manufacture at scale, like the U.S. Department of Defense could take a DARPA design into production.

Passe passwords

Dugan's notorious ire over password authentication also has become the object of ATAP's attention in a project called Abacus. ATAP recruited 25 experts from 16 institutions in 10 countries to collaborate on signing-in or authenticating without passwords at Google's Mountain View facility during a 90-day design session.  Applying machine learning, the collaborators built an app that vouches for the identity of the user based on a multimodal assessment of his or her behavior.

By enlisting such smartphone sensors as the camera and accelerometer, ATAP replaces passwords by collecting data about the users' unique patterns of behavior while typing, talking, changing facial expressions and walking. The combination of this data can uniquely identify the user carrying and interacting with a smartphone almost like a baby identifies its mother by the way she carries and interacts with her infant.

Individually these patterns may be a weaker security defense than a simple four-digit pin code, but combined they're stronger than the best fingerprint reader. Dugan declared success in her war against the password, saying "the result, proof of the hypothesis a new method of authentication that may prove to be 10-fold more secure than the best fingerprint sensors. The hope is that with only a software update we can provide this level of security to millions of Android devices."


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