Human beings have developed a love/hate relationship with smartphones over the past two decades. They’re devices many of us can’t imagine living without… but they’re also frustrating gadgets that demand too much of our time and attention.
A startup called Humane has been teasing a smartphone alternative for much of the year, and now the company has unveiled its screen-free mobile device called the Ai Pin. It goes on sale November 16 for $699 and ships in early 2024. Customers in the US will be able to get unlimited text, talk, and data on T-Mobile’s network for $24 per month.
So… what exactly is the Ai pin?
In terms of hardware, it’s a compact gadget that measures about 45 x 48 x 15mm (1.8″ x 1.9″ x 0.6″) and weighs 34 grams (1.2 ounces). It comes with a Battery Booster that measures 8mm (0.3 inches”) and weighs 21 grams (about 0.7 ounces), making the whole thing weigh less than 2 ounces.
You wear the Ai Pin by clipping it to clothing magnetically, with the battery booster on one side of your shirt (or jacket, or what have you), and the pin on the other. And you can swap out battery boosters for extended run time (interestingly, Humane hasn’t indicated how long the battery lasts, or how often you’ll need to switch boosters).
There’s also an optional clip accessory for wearing the Ai Pin on clothing that may be too thick for the magnets to work.
Under the hood there’s an unspecified 2.1 Ghz octa-core Qualcomm Snpadragon processor with support for hardware-accelerated on-device AI performance, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of eMMC storage. And the device supports WiFi 5, Bluetooth 5.1, GPS, and 4G LTE for use with the “Humane Wireless Service, Connected by T-Mobile.”
Since there’s no display, you can interact with the Ai Pin by voice or touch gestures. There are dual microphones and a directional speaker that aims sound toward your ears, plus a touch surface that supports tap and swipe gestures. There’s also support for Bluetooth headphones.
Unlike some virtual assistant devices, the Humane Ai Pin isn’t always listening for you to say some sort of wake word. Instead, you tap and hold the touch surface to talk to the the Ai Pin or use a double-tap to answer or end calls or start and stop music playback.
You can also use swipe gestures to switch music tracks or adjust volume, and two-finger gestures to snap photos or use the Ai Pin’s translation tools.
Of course, there’s some information that’s best displayed visually, so Humane has an (odd) solution for that: a “Laser Ink Display,” which is basically a 720p “custom-color single-diode” laser projector that can display things like media controls, notifications, or other information on your hand or other surfaces. It’s designed for short range projections, with an operating distance of 20 to 40 cm (about 8 to 16 inches).
The Ai Pin also has an integrated 13MP camera with a 120 field of view for capturing images and video, and a “Trust Light” that illuminates when the device is active, with deferent colors to indicate whether you’re using the camera, phone, mic, or other functions.
There’s also a smaller “Beacon” indicator light that shines upward to indicate different sorts of alerts.
Humane offers three color options: Eclipse (all black), Equinox (Silver and black) or Lunar (Silver and white), and all versions have an aluminum body with a Gorilla Glass Victus touchpad.
So what do you actually do with this thing? In case the name didn’t give it away, the Ai Pin uses generative artificial intelligence to help you do things like send and receive messages, summarize emails, or just initiate phone calls to your contacts by voice. You can also stream music from Tidal, or use Humane’s pin and AI service to translate spoken language including things somebody says to you or things you’re saying to somebody else.
And the built-in camera brings support for image recognition. In a demo, for example, Humane showed how you can hold a handful of almonds up to the camera and ask how much protein it contains, or hold up a book to ask how much it costs.
There are no apps in the Humane AI service, but you can manage your photos, reminders, and other data via a web app.
The Ai Pin charges wirelessly via a charging pad, and comes with a charging case that can top off the pin and battery booster, and which accepts power via a USB-C port on the bottom.
Humane says the $699 starting price includes the Ai pin and all basic accessories including two battery boosters, a charging pad, and charging case.
And the $24/month plan includes access to AI features powered by OpenAI, Microsoft, Google, Tidal, Slack, with no limit on the number of queries as well as support for photo and video synchronization and a dedicated cellphone phone number.
It’s certainly an ambitious set of features for a brand new kind of mobile device. And while the $699 hardware puts this gadget squarely in the same price category as an upper mid-range smartphone or even an entry-level flagship, the wireless service is actually a lot cheaper than most mobile plans.
But the truth is that there’s almost nothing that the Ai Pin can do that a smartphone can’t… and there’s a lot more that you can do with a phone. So the true test here is whether people who’ve said they wish they could give up their phones for something simpler really mean it or not.
Personally, I have a hard time seeing this sort of thing really take off as a smartphone replacement. I could see it working as a smartphone companion that you could use at times when you want to leave your primary device at home. But in order for it to be a viable product in the smartphone companion category, it would probably have to be a lot cheaper than $699 + $24 per month.