Google and Samsonite’s smart backpack is a better use of Jacquard

But only if you’re still carrying a backpack to places these days.

When Google and Levis launched their Jacquard smart jacket in 2017, the world was a very different place. Most people actually commuted, they didn’t just roll out of bed in their underwear.  The idea of a smart jacket that would help you interact with your phone while you biked to work actually seemed kinda clever. Google later teamed up with Yves Saint Lauren on a luxury $878 backpack that did all the same things. It was interesting to see the Jacquard tech incorporated into something other than a jacket, even if it cost too much for most people.

But it’s 2020 -- the hellscape year that no one anticipated. Most of us aren’t going very far these days. And most of the time it’s just a quick trip to the store, and doesn’t really necessitate loading up a bag. Still, Google and Samsonite are launching a new smart backpack called the Konnect-i that starts at a more reasonable $200. Even though I barely venture outside these days, and rarely need to carry more than a mask, my wallet and my phone, my experience with the Konnect-i left me impressed. I only wish it had launched at a different time.

The Konnect-i is available in two models -- slim and standard. I lugged around the latter, which is quite big for my frame and very structured and rigid. There’s more than enough room for my laptop, a DSLR, my makeup pouch, and a phone still in its retail box. It’s exactly the sort of backpack I would take to tradeshows.

Unlike on the YSL backpack, where the threads camouflage into the strap, the Samsonite version’s white stripes contrast against the black background. This visual cue is helpful because I don’t have to feel around for the touch-sensitive area. The ridged texture also helps distinguish them from the rest of the strap.

To connect the backpack to your phone, you’ll have to slot a thumb-sized dongle into the strap, just like you would with the jacket. While it was slightly unwieldy on the sleeve’s cuff, this module sits unobtrusively near the bottom of the backpack’s strap. The module syncs with your phone via Bluetooth, and through the Jacquard app, you can define what brushing up and down or double tapping the strap does.

There aren’t any new tools available on the Jacquard platform -- you can still only do things like skip or pause your music, ask Assistant a question or drop pins to remember places you’ve been. I set a swipe up to go back a song on my playlist, brushing down to skip to the next track and double tap to take a selfie. I also chose to have the dongle’s LED light up green when a message or call came in and blue for Uber notifications.

Samsonite Konnect-i backpack with Google Jacquard hands-on
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

While I’m underwhelmed by the lack of new features, I was impressed by how much more responsive the Konnect-i was compared to the jacket. When I received a text, the strap vibrated to alert me before my phone even showed an alert. With a brush up on the fibers, Assistant read the contents to me, though oddly it left out the name of the sender.

Similarly, swiping up or down to control my music was speedy, and pairing the Konnect-i with my phone was a breeze. I also liked that when I double tapped to take a selfie, not only did my phone quickly pull up the camera in the Jacquard app and start a 3-second countdown, but the backpack vibrated in tandem. Perhaps because it’s on my shoulder and chest instead of on my wrist, the dongle’s vibration felt stronger and more noticeable than on the jacket.

I also find the implementation of Jacquard better here. For one, I am far less likely to toss a backpack in the washing machine (sometimes I do, okay?) and ruin the hardware if I forget to remove it. Backpacks are also slightly more versatile than jackets -- whether it’s 100 degrees or 10, you can always carry a backpack. One thing the jacket does better, though, is that when the module’s LED lights up in a specific color, it’s easier to see on the sleeve than on the backpack’s strap.

Despite all the improvements and benefits the Konnect-i brings, I’m not sure there’s much of a value proposition here. It might be helpful on your grocery runs, bike rides or while you’re walking your dog. But a $200 smartwatch can do all the same things, and more. It would be more useful if Jacquard offered more skills, especially since it’s easier to interact with the backpack strap than the tiny face of a wearable. As it stands, though, the Konnect-i is a niche product that will only appeal to a limited audience.