An aqua-blue light appeared on my outstretched palm, showing a menu. Slowly, I circled my wrist to scroll, pressing an index finger and thumb together
in a pinching motion to select an item. I wanted to send a text message. The device on my sweater, a 2-inch-square magnetic pin from a startup called Humane, let out a soft “clink”.
I spoke, and the words leaving my mouth projected instantly into my hand. Squeezing a fist, the message sent with a “whoosh” sound.
The gadget, called the Ai Pin, is a new take on wearable devices that aims to supplant, or at least help wean us off, our addiction to screens. Its features include answering questions, making calls, sending texts, playing music and taking photos. It costs $699 and a $24 monthly subscription. The company hopes to ship the devices by early 2024.
It was, like any new technology, equal parts magical and awkward. It took a few seconds of waving my hand in front of my chest to find the laser menu. The circling wrist motion takes a second to nail as well. In 10 minutes of wearing the device at the company’s offices, I gradually learned how to hold the light and manipulate it.
Most fun, in my view, was the pinching motion. Pinch: Play a new song. Pinch: Start a new message. Pinch: Back to the menu. The company refers to this motion as “picking”, said Imran Chaudhri, Humane’s co-founder. “Pinching hurts,” he said.
I quickly ran out of things to pinch, because unlike my smartphone, which offers a steady barrage of dopamine in the form of emails, texts, hearts, news alerts, cute dog pictures and other notifications, Humane’s Ai Pin is meant to fade into the background of everyday life. I told Ken Kocienda, Humane’s head of product engineering, that the device seemed to get you in and out quickly. It is not begging me to lose another 45 minutes inside TikTok.
“It’s more of a pull than pushing content at you in the way iPhones do,” he said. I dropped my hand, and the light disappeared.
To ask a question, I tapped the pin’s touch screen. To take a photo, I double-tapped. But to actually see the photo, I would need a screen. Humane customers will have access to an online hub with 32 gigabytes of storage.
The device’s “personic speakers” (a portmanteau of personal and sonic) played music via the streaming service Tidal. Early customers will get a trial subscription. I quickly learned that it was much faster to use voice commands to change songs, the way I would on a home speaker with Alexa, Siri or Google. It felt a bit as if I’d smuggled Alexa out of the house and was wearing her on my sweater.
The Ai Pin’s underlying technology differs from other smart assistants in that it is not always on — users must touch the device to wake it. And its assistant uses artificial intelligence technology to deliver information in a conversational way. It can remember past queries and notes to self. (The note-to-self feature froze up in one demo.)
Kocienda demonstrated this by asking a series of history questions about
The New York Times that built on one another, which the pin answered in roughly the same amount of time it might take to search Wikipedia on my phone.
The point, he said, was that we didn’t have to disappear into our screens.
“We’re looking at each other while all this is going on,” Kocienda said. “We’re not being distracted.”