Do I have an opinion on Humane’s weird Ai Pin? Of course I do.
The talk of the tech scene right now is around Humane’s AI Pin, a $US699 gadget (plus $24 monthly subscription fee) that’s apparently going to replace your smartphone with an AI-led assistant that (and I’m quoting directly here) “marks a new beginning for personal consumer technology, offering users the ability to take AI with them everywhere in an entirely new, conversational and screenless form factor. “
According to Humane, if I buy an Ai Pin (which I can’t just yet, because it’s US only at launch), I can “Speak to it naturally, use the intuitive touchpad, hold up objects, use gestures, or interact via the pioneering Laser Ink Display projected onto your palm.”
Ooh, techy words that sound all kinds of flashy. It’s been built out by a bunch of ex-Apple folks — and you can tell, because the launch video looks like it could have been shot at Apple HQ, frankly, and it even debuted at Paris Fashion Week.
HOW CAN IT POSSIBLY FAIL?
Well… pretty easily, actually.
One of the benefits of being a tech journo for too long for as long as I have is that I’ve seen more than my fair share of heavily hyped gadgets.
I once reviewed a PCs shaped like a Fish, the aptly named Fish PC. Rather like fish a week after they’ve been caught… it stank.
I can recall a gadget that was going to “change the way cities are designed in the future” but didn’t.
Bonus points if you can remember what that was without reading the sentence that directly follows the one you’re reading right now.
It was the Segway. That’s still a brand, but it’s a brand-in-name-only, nothing much to do with the original Segway that was going to be so revolutionary. It was going to change the way we live. I’m still waiting for it to do so.
I’ve tested out smartphones with dedicated physical Facebook buttons, because why not, alongside phones with full screens on both sides, because sure, you could do that if you really must. Photo printers for portable games consoles that needed special paper only. Feature phones with E-Ink displays… I could go on.
So many weird gadgets, and so few actual hits.
And that’s when that line about a screenless form factor hit me.
Because I’d heard that kind of pitch before.
Not only heard it, but I was present at its launch in person, and I was pretty sure I still had one around… somewhere.
Because what the Humane AI Pin reminds me of more than most is the HTC Re.
The HTC Re — a device you may not have ever heard of, and if you have you’ve probably forgotten about it until right now — was an action camera competitor from HTC, taking on the likes of GoPro with a weird periscope/asthma inhaler shape. Look, here’s me on video talking about it back nearly a decade ago:
I’m being kind in that video, because early release hardware deserves a fair shake… but when it came down to it, the Re was more gimmick than genuinely useful gadget.
HTC tried hard and it hyped hard. It flew journalists from all over the world (including me, disclaimer, I travelled as a guest of HTC nearly a decade ago, you may now judge my choices) to New York to launch it, they drove us all around the city to capture images with it, trying to build the hype and then… almost nobody, as far as I can tell, actually bought an HTC Re.
I mean, we’d be onto HTC Re Gen 9 by now if they had been a hit.
To be fair to HTC, I do love a company that takes a punt on an oddball gadget or two every once in a while, and it’s fair to say that the company’s foray into VR, launched not that much later than the Re, was a far greater success.
You can’t win them all, but at least HTC had irons in many fires and could ride out something like the Re with relative ease.
Humane though, is all about, and seemingly only about, the Humane Ai Pin.
One big reason why the Re didn’t click was also because of its screenless form factor. Yes, you could take quick photos, but you could never be sure of what they were until you offloaded them from the Re, whereas a phone camera could show you immediately what you’d shot and let you frame it properly in the first place.
That problem for the Re is just about the same feeling I get from the Humane Ai Pin as well, because it seems to forget that while gadgets can be quirky and fun, they also need to solve an actual problem or issue.
Pretty obviously, the same issue around cameras applies here; I might be able to tell the Ai Pin to take a photo, but I won’t know if it’s got smiles all round or just some random dude’s elbow in the shot until later, possibly after the moment has passed.
The “Laser Ink” sounds all kinds of techy and futuristic, but it’s just the same kind of projection that in-car HUDs have used for years now, making my private phone messages visible to anyone to wants to read them badly projected onto my hand. Do I want that? No.
I can’t be the only one who also figures that something like this screams “Hey Muggers! STEAL ME!”… can I?
The AI assistant might be smart, but if we’ve learned anything about AI assistants in the past few years or so, it’s that they’re far better at making stupid guesses about content or outright making it up than they are delivering accurate views of the world.
Add to that the social awkward factor that sunk devices like Google Glass (“Nobody wants to look techy”) and the way you’d have to talk to it all the time, and I have… doubts.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a lapel pin. I’m hardly the world’s most fashionable guy — in recent polling I featured strongly in the bottom 16 of that competition — but I’m struck by the fact that anything I have to pin to myself is something that’s going to sag on the clothing I’m wearing.
Every once in a while when I attend an event, I’m given a badge with my name on it. It’s always fun working out whether the company in question knows who I’m writing or working for… though to be fair, I’ve worked for that many mastheads now that it’s understandable that some of them might get it wrong from time to time.
Sometimes, they even remember that I’m not this guy (who also seems to have his doubts about the Humane Ai Pin, funny that)
But every time I pin that badge on, it sinks down across (typically) my right breast. Is that a flattering look? It is not. And that’s just from some tech journo/slob who generally wears T-shirts everywhere; I can see it being seriously problematic for all kinds of different outfits across genders, genres and social settings.
But maybe I’m wrong. You never know if you never have a go, and amongst the weird and wonderful failures, every once in a while something gets released that hits not only a need but also the popular zeitgeist. Maybe the Ai Pin is exactly that, and in 5 years time I’ll have half a dozen of them, one for every working day of the week.
Or maybe… and this feels more likely… it’ll end up like the Re that HTC gave me to test out.
I used that Re for a little while, worked out where it was problematic — mostly the framing and capture difficulty — and then ignored it for a number of years.
A few years ago, I stuck googly eyes on it, which looked great, and put it in my office window because that gently amused me.
Today, I went to find it. It was still there, the googly eyes were still on it… but the harsh glare of sunlight had not been kind to its originally bright orange hue.
I wonder how well the Humane Ai pin will stand up to a few years of sunshine?