The first thing I noticed about Humane’s Ai Pin was how light the $699 smartphone replacement was. With its aluminum finishes and “matchbook with an extra thick wedge on one side” shape, you might think it would feel weighty on a shirt, but in hand, and pinned to my flannel, it wasn’t hard to see how it could fade into the background.
Then again, that’s all relative. The Ai Pin’s magnetic back isn’t strong enough to work with all clothes, nor light enough to not stretch thin and delicate fabrics, hence Humane’s optional (at an added cost) Latch and Clip accessories for thin and thick fabrics, respectively.
This kind of dichotomy illustrates the Ai Pin’s strengths and potential problems.
As we’ve covered, Humane went public with almost every detail about the highly anticipated Ai Pin. We know orders start on November 16 and the AI-powered wearable starts shipping in early 2024. The Ai Pin has many of the components you might find in a smartphone, like a camera, Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, depth sensor, motion sensor, speakers, and microphones. And at least one you won’t find: a laser projector that beams visuals onto the palm of your hand. The Ai Pin’s Cosmos operating system is built on open-source Android. It even connects to T-Mobile’s network. The Ai Pin is, in many ways, a smartphone.
Then again, it has no screen, no apps, and is designed to work with a variety of AI models first and foremost (some custom, some built by OpenAI, the list seems set to grow). The Ai Pin is device that is great at providing bits of contextual information, but maybe not for falling down the rabbit holes of research and scrolling that can normally happen on a smartphone.
The Ai Pin is, in many ways, a smartphone.
What I can say confidently is the Ai Pin hardware reflects the polish you’d expect from Apple, perhaps not surprising given the number of former Apple employees on Humane’s team (co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri both worked on a variety of high-profile projects like the iPhone and iPad). The Ai Pin is full of clever details, from the unboxing experience (the Ai Pin ships inside its charging cradle and automatically turns on when you pull it out of the box) to the miniaturized projector, time-of-flight sensor, and 13-megapixel camera the company managed to cram into the device’s roughly half-inch-thick frame.
It feels satisfying to snap the Ai Pin on its magnetic Battery Booster, in and out of its very AirPods-esque “Charge Case,” and into the variety of colorful shields (with several that look like Gatorade flavors) the company plans to sell as accessories.
Humane imagines the Ai Pin fulfilling many of the tasks a smartphone does, making calls, sending messages, getting directions, summarizing email and work messages, and even streaming music through a partnership with Tidal, along with all of the nebulous tasks you might turn to ChatGPT for.
In practice, and on the slow Wi-Fi at Humane’s demo space (the Ai Pin does connect to Wi-Fi), it seemed capable of those things, if you were willing to wait. Looking up information previously saved in notes or stored in messages and emails was pulled up in a few seconds. For example, the Humane employee leading my demo was able to take a note to remember my name, job, and where I worked and then was able to pull up a specific answer at the end of our demo with “where does Ian work?” Live translations into Japanese took longer, long enough to likely feel awkward if you were relying on the Ai Pin’s translations to navigate a foreign country, but that could be chalked up to the poor internet connection.
While Humane definitely hopes voice controls will satisfy most of what you’ll want to do with the Pin, in moments where you need to be more discrete, or if you don’t want to use your voice, you can rely on gestures to navigate the Ai Pin’s “Laser Ink Display” projected on your hand. Using a series of hand tilts and pinches you can navigate the main menu to get basic information like the date, time, weather, and a “Nearby” menu that shows closeby points of interest you can learn more about. “Telescoping” your hand away from the Ai Pin pulls up a contextual grid of common actions and interactions like messaging or music controls. And to go back, regardless of where you are in the interface, you just close your hand.
The system seemed a bit overwhelming to me during the demo, and I was surprised at how cramped the interface looked on a smaller hand, but by no means did it seem unusable. The Ai Pin’s skills are supposed to be improved over time. One of Humane’s big pitches for the Ai Pin is that its abilities will improve and change over time as more “Ai Experiences” are built for the device’s Cosmos OS, Hopefully, according to Humane CEO Bethany Bongiorno, culminating in a public SDK that will allow anyone to build an experience on their own.
Does the Ai Pin Have a Future?
The Ai Pin is trying to prove that “contextual computers,” the things we think could replace smartphones like smart glasses or mixed headsets, don’t have to be worn on your face. In the process, Humane hopes to eliminate the need for smartphones. The goal is admirable, and after seeing the Ai Pin, it certainly seems more possible to me than I thought previously, but a few things give me pause.
One is the required subscription. You’ll need to pay for a $24 per month subscription to use the Ai Pin. The plan includes cell service (Humane is essentially acting as an MVNO on T-Mobile’s network), cloud storage, and unlimited access to a growing list of AI features. Viewed from one angle, the Ai Pin and a subscription is a deal. Unlimited plans at T-Mobile start at $90/month for one line. ChatGPT Plus, OpenAI’s subscription for unlimited ChatGPT queries, is $20/month. And that’s not even counting what it costs to pay for storing photos, videos, audio recordings, and whatever else the Ai Pin can capture. Viewed from another angle, Humane is selling a device that could become useless as soon as you can’t pay for its subscription.
The Ai Pin is basically a nice piece of jewelry without the subscription. “[Ai Pin is] a network-connected computer, so it doesn’t do anything without a network,” Bongiorno explained when asked about the limitation in a Q&A. It’ll also have a limited set of features if you don’t have an internet connection. The employee leading my demo said that without internet, general AI queries are off the table, but camera functionality is still possible, for example. Multiple Humane employees weren’t able to say how much of the devices AI features are processed on the device versus in the cloud, only that the device does both.
“…without internet, general AI queries are off the table, but camera functionality is still possible.”
The other is interacting with the device itself. Basically, it requires a lot of trust. And I’m not necessarily referring to the Ai Pin’s sensors (the microphone or camera won’t turn on without physically pressing the Pin’s touchpad). I mean navigating the world without being consistently able to see what you’re doing. It’s a very different behavior than I think most people are used to, even if they are voice assistant fans, and I’m not sure it’s a natural one in most settings.
And more than that, our smartphones act as more than just communication devices, cameras, and portals to information. They’re sources of entertainment and increasingly, payment and identification. So far, Humane doesn’t have an answer for that functionality.
Added together, the Ai Pin is exciting in the way all big swings are, the difference being it seems like Humane could back up its claims. What’s unclear is whether the average smartphone customer will be willing to adapt… or pay.