Why the Ai Pin fell flat
Apr 23, 2024

Why the Ai Pin fell flat

The reviews are in, and so far, Humane’s new Ai Pin doesn’t live up to its pre-release hype. The Verge’s Victoria Song says that in addition to breaking the first rule of wearable tech design, the device simply doesn’t work as expected.

A new wearable from tech startup Humane promises to bring an AI assistant to your lapel.

The device Humane calls the Ai Pin starts at $700 plus a $24 monthly data plan. It attaches to your jacket, sweater or shirt and operates with voice commands or a digital interface laser projected onto the palm of your hand.

It sounds like the stuff of a sci-fi novel, but the reviews so far are not good.

YouTuber and tech reviewer Marques Brownlee called it the worst product he’s reviewed so far. It’s “bad at almost everything it does basically all the time,” he said. Cherlynn Low, deputy reviews editor at Engadget, said the pin is “futuristic for sure, if the future sucked” and Verge editor-at-large David Pierce said bluntly, “the pin is not worth the money, not yet and probably not any time soon.”

The panning of the pin comes after five years in development, $240 million in funding and partnerships struck with the likes of OpenAI, Microsoft and Salesforce.

So what went wrong? Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino asked Victoria Song, senior reviewer at The Verge, what this device is supposed to be for.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Victoria Song: That’s actually, I think, one of the biggest questions about the pin in general is like, how are we supposed to be using this? It’s been compared to the “Star Trek” communicators a lot. And it’s one of those [artificial intelligence] things where they’re trying to sell us on this vision of ambient computing, right? So your gadgets are with you in the world, they’re not screens, they are devices that are helping you contextualize things and make calculating everyday things easier. And the problem with that is that not everyone lives the same life, not everyone lives the same experiences. So, I think there’s just a little friction as to how we talk about the problem that this is trying to solve. Like, what is the problem? I don’t think everyone really has a clear idea.

(Courtesy Humane)

Meghan McCarty Carino: It’s interesting that you mentioned “Star Trek” because I think in a kind of sci-fi fantasy world, it looks amazing to be able to have so much capability at your fingertips without having to deal with a screen. But I think the reality of wearables or technology without screens right now is that they are often kind of cumbersome. I often get frustrated with them. It often takes me longer to do something that would have taken 30 seconds on a screen.

Song: Absolutely. And some of that is a lot like learning a new language. Because when you have kind of like programmed pathways that you’re used to, those are just so much easier because you don’t have to think. There’s no thought involved. But when you learn a new language — and by using these devices, you are in a sense learning a new language because you’re learning new prompts, you’re learning how to talk to AI — it’s not the same way that you just talk to yourself, right? So, you have spent decades of your life at this point learning how to navigate computer menus, and that’s baked into the way we interact with our phones. Like, we all know that the three-bar menu means “more.” Like there’s no translation there, you’ve grown up knowing that, that is native to you. Giving a command to an AI voice assistant, you have to learn how to speak that language, you have to learn the prompt. And so that’s one reason why I think people in general sometimes get these devices. And they’re like, “Oh, this is so cumbersome, this is so frustrating to use.” One of the issues that we’ve seen people have with the Humane Ai Pin is that it’s not working through your phone, right? It’s meant to be completely screenless. The idea is that you can leave your phone at home, which means it needs its own cellular connection, which means it’s constantly asking a server the answers to your question. So, it has to send the question up to the cloud and it has to sit, and it has to process, and then it has to come back down. So, you’re waiting seven seconds for an answer. Well, that’s impressive when you consider what it’s actually doing, but when you consider that your phone is instant, you’re not waiting seven seconds, you’re not even waiting a second. That’s an eternity. That’s just so unbearably long because you’ve been trained to know how long something should take. It should be instant, it should be at your fingertips. So, you can kind of see the disconnect between “Oh my God, it only took seven seconds. That’s actually quite impressive,” but your phone only takes 30 milliseconds, so it’s not good enough.

McCarty Carino: So, you have spent some time with this device. What did you try to do with it, and what did you think?

Song: So, my colleague David Pierce did the full review, but he called me in for the translation section of it because I speak some other languages, and that was a unmitigated disaster. It was just repeating what I was saying in an accent. I didn’t understand what was happening. My best guess is that it was stuck thinking I was speaking a different language. It’s not to say that there’s no innovation here, there is. It’s just that it’s a $700 device with a $24 monthly subscription, and it’s not working in the way that you would want something that costs that much to work. So I think this is going to be one of those cases where you see a company that had a really cool idea and did not get the timing right. That’s my take on it.

McCarty Carino: You wrote about some of your expectations for the Humane Ai Pin last fall, when some of the initial marketing materials started coming out and you pointed out in an early criticism of it, which is that with a wearable, you have to want to wear it. What’s the problem with this?

Song: So, for a wearable to be successful, you have to wear it most hours of the day. And let’s look at this pin. It’s heavier than you would think a lot of things to be. If you look at the marketing images, it’s generally on outerwear, right? It’s on jackets, it’s on cardigans, it’s on thicker materials. And there’s a reason for that. Because if you were to stick that on a really flimsy, like, a silk shirt, it would drag. And you can see it on reviewers, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can go look at pictures of reviewers wearing it in the real world, and you can see it drag on, like, sweaters and on T-shirts. And we’re vain creatures, humans are vain. Are you going to wear a pin that doesn’t look good with your fit? Maybe you leave it at home, right? Those are some of the design elements of wearables that this pin’s form factor doesn’t tick all the right boxes.

McCarty Carino: The “Star Trek” version of an AI virtual assistant that attaches to your shirt sounds pretty good in concept. What would it take for this AI pin to be worthwhile?

Song: It would need to work. Like, it would just need to work most of the time. And I really think that if they had been able to have a really seamless user experience, we would be having a very different conversation right now. But basically, every single review that has come out on the Humane Ai Pin has just been like it is a pain to get working, it just tells you wrong answer sometimes because AI hallucinates, or it’s just not intuitive. There’s a lot of friction. So, once you have the friction, you’re just, like, “Oh it’s just easier to pull out my phone.” It has to be easier than using your phone for it to work. And it’s not.

More on this

Speaking of the sci-fi fantasy of an AI-assisted future, last year we did a whole series looking back at the 2013 movie “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.

Production designer K.K. Barrett told us he purposely tried to free the characters from constantly looking at screens when he was designing the tech of that future world. In part as a reaction to our present reality, but also — because it makes for a pretty dull movie.

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