Fabric-coated tech products have slowly but surely padded into the market in 2018, suggesting a future of gentle, unobtrusive devices. Here’s a look at some of the best examples.
Trend forecaster Li Edelkoort first predicted the rise of cosy technology more than 20 years ago, in the seminal exhibition Softwear. Her vision was for a future where working from home was typical and technology blended into domestic life.
This year saw Edelkoort reprise the topic for a joint exhibition with Google at Milan design week, having been struck with the tactility and soft curves the company put into its hardware.
“We’re at a place where technology is already in our lives, we know it’s in our lives, but how do we make it fit more into our lives, and how do we make it feel more human?” said Google’s vice-president of hardware design Ivy Ross at a Dezeen talk at the event.
“For us, that was through soft curves… Everything is familiar, human, rounded.”
The appearance of fabric-covered gadgetry can be seen as part of this broader trend to return a sense of calm to domestic life. Samsung has recently made a television disguised as a painting on the wall, while Nendo designed a speaker from wood.
But textiles have probably been the most common way tech companies have introduced tactility and cuddliness into their products.
Here are 12 of the most interesting examples:
Google Daydream View virtual-reality headset
Google has emerged as one of the trailblazers in soft tech products, with nearly all of its current hardware line having a textile component.
One of the most striking examples is the Daydream View virtual-reality headset, released in 2016 and designed to hold a smartphone. The headset brings games and apps from the phone into VR. Small product design studio Planeta made a similar fabric headset earlier in the same year.
Microsoft Surface laptops
Another tech giant to have embraced fabric is Microsoft. Its Surface line of laptops features fabric where users have come to expect a metallic texture – on their keyboards.
The fabric is Alcantara, an Italian-made microfibre that looks and feels similar to suede. It is meant to “add a touch of luxury” to the devices while providing a comfortable palm rest. It’s found on the type covers of the Surface Laptop 2, and Surface Go and Surface Pro 6 convertible tablets.
HP Tango X printer
Released in September 2018, the HP Tango X is probably the only printer to be covered in soft textile. The linen cover, available in indigo or charcoal, wraps the wireless printer like a book jacket, disguising it when it’s not in use.
When opened, the cover serves as a paper landing zone. With many features and controls relegated to an accompanying app, the printer itself has a cleaner, more compact design. HP describes the result as “a little more harmonious and a little more human”.
Google Home Mini smart speakers
In the field of smart speakers — speakers equipped with voice-activated assistants like Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant — textiles have swiftly become the norm. Apple’s HomePod has a mesh that looks like something between a metal and a textile while Amazon’s Echo range offers woven textures.
But it’s Google’s Home Mini that is probably the most fully concealed by its fabric cover, looking like a soft, stone-like button. Lights shine through the fabric when the speaker is activated.
Designed in collaboration with Barber and Osgerby’s creative consultancy Map, the Ome smart doorbell (previously Ding) has two main components: a plastic button for outside the door, and a fabric-covered, pill-shaped speaker for inside the home.
The doorbell allows residents to answer their door remotely. Ome’s creators described its design as “simple, beautiful and smart”.
Textiles typically help a cold tech product feel more gentle. But Snoo, a design by leading gadget designer Yves Behar, is an example where the softest of furnishings has been subtly enhanced with technology.
Snoo is a robot crib — it rocks babies back to sleep when they cry. With textile mesh sides and wooden base, it is designed to blend into a cosy nursery or the parents’ bedroom.
Google Pixel Buds
Another Google product, the Pixel Buds are wireless headphones that incorporate the company’s voice assistant feature so that they can translate languages in real time.
A fabric cord connects the two earbuds and forms a small loop at either end, which sits inside the ear to help hold them in place. While the main part of the earbuds is plastic, the fabric is meant to soften the look and makes the device feel more comfortable against the skin.
Thing Industries furry Wi-Fi router
Thing Industries’ hairy creation was part of a 2015 Google experiment to beautify the wireless router.
Twenty-four artists and designers came up with covers for OnHub, a device with fewer wires and antennas than a standard router. The designs ranged from a laser-cut plywood case shaped like a Slinky to a a cover that turned the device into a fruit bowl, but Thing Industries went in a softer direction.
IKEA Eneby speakers
Fabric has long been used on speakers, but some of the latest iterations are emphasising the textile component more than ever.
One example is Eneby, IKEA’s first speaker. The simple square device has a fabric-covered front, with a simple circular dial detail and a small light to indicate when the device is powered up.
Urbanears is another champion of the boxy fabric speaker.
Bang & Olufsen speaker wall tiles
Launched at Milan design week 2017, Bang & Olufsen’s BeoSound Shape system is meant to serve as a speaker, wall decoration and acoustic panel, dampening sound from carrying to the next room.
The hexagonal panels are covered in wool fabric made by Danish textile brand Kvadrat and can be arranged in different combinations. It is intended for home or office environments.
Nest Thermostat E
The Nest Thermostat E is a smart thermostat that allows users to turn the heating in their home up or down remotely, or automate it.
While the main device is plastic, it comes with an accompanying fabric-covered Heat Link device that connects to the heating system to allow the thermostat to control it. The grey marle device is meant to be wall mounted and can also sense the temperature in the room.
Aura Powered Clothing
In a few cases now, technology has been embedded into clothing without damaging the fabric’s softness and flexibility.
The Aura Power Clothing prototype by Yves Behar and robotics company Superflex is one example. The clothing incorporates “electric muscles” that assist elderly wearers to walk, stand up and climb stairs in their home.
Other examples already on the market include Google’s Project Jacquard phone-synced denim jacket and Wearable X’s posture-correcting leggings for yoga.
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