In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone and ushered in the era of the smartphone—which has transformed our societies and lives. Its former employees unveiled a product that aims to be just as revolutionary—a device that has no screens and is pinned to your chest. Is this the beginning of something truly new?
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
Ok, tell me about this pin…
First, the company: Humane was founded in 2018 by two former Apple engineers: Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno—who are also married to each other. This office romance eventually led to the founding of Humane which is an only-in-Silicon-Valley story:
[A Buddhist monk named] Brother Spirit, whom they met through their acupuncturist, recommended that they share the ideas with his friend, Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce. Sitting beneath a palm tree on a cliff above the ocean at Mr. Benioff’s Hawaiian home in 2018, they explained both devices. “This one,” Mr. Benioff said, pointing at the Ai Pin, as dolphins breached the surf below, “is huge.”
The funders: Humane has raised a total of $240 million from the A-plus list of investors—everyone from Microsoft to Volvo, Tiger Global and OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman—who owns 15% of the company. Adding to glamour: the product was kept as a super-duper secret until it was unveiled last week.
FYI: The company is already valued at $850 million—before it sold a single device.
So is it worth all that hype? Here are the most striking features of the $699 Ai Pin:
Relocated tech: Unlike smart glasses or headsets, the device built by Humane clips on to your chest. You put a magnetic battery pack on the inside of your clothing—and it holds the external pin in place. As for the pin itself, it’s not exactly small—closer to the weight of a tennis ball:
With its housing carved from a single chunk of aluminium, Humane’s device is closer to a brooch, a tin of mints, or a cigarette packet clipped in half than the sleeker items that adorn politicians’ lapels or baseball fans’ caps. No one standing a distance away is going to miss it.
You get a better sense of its size in this pic of Naomi Campbell wearing it on the runway at Paris Fashion Week:
Zero screens: This is the biggest change—and the driver of its design. Ai Pin’s creators wanted to build an antidote for our addiction to screens. Humane’s pin instead uses a laser to project information onto your palm. Or you can talk to the AI-driven personal assistant—called Ai Mic—which claims to be way smarter than Siri. In fact, ‘voice’ is your primary mode of interaction with the device. The Pin is designed to make it super easy to talk to it:
One of the product engineers Ken Kocienda… often talks to Ai Mic over breakfast with his wife and at red lights on his drive home as questions pop into mind. “It keeps you in the moment with the people you are with and it feels really lightweight and fun,” he says.
Yes, there is a camera that can take photos and vids. This one-minute ad gives you a sense of how it works:
Zero swipes given: All that swiping and scrolling is designed to make apps “sticky”—effortless to lose hours on Insta or Twitter. But Humane has deliberately built an “anti-sticky” device. You instead pinch your fingers—which it describes as “picking.” You have to actively select content—rather than having it pushed to you. According to a New York Times reviewer:
Pinch: Play a new song. Pinch: Start a new message. Pinch: Back to the menu… 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 pics and other notifications, Humane’s Ai Pin is meant to fade into the background of everyday life… the device seemed to get you in and out quickly. It is not begging me to lose another 45 minutes inside TikTok.
Irony alert: Humane’s founders invented the ‘swipe to unlock’ feature during their time at Apple.
No apps please: The device comes with its own $24 per month plan—which includes a broadband connection and subscriptions to certain platforms such as Tidal (for music). You can’t download apps onto your Ai Pin. But the AI allows you to interact with your apps—at least those that have partnered with Humane. Here’s how it works with Slack, for example:
If you ask the Ai Pin to “catch you up,” it summarises upcoming events and the messages you’ve received, including messages shared to an app like Slack… you could have the Ai Pin pull up a specific piece of information from a Slack thread without having to look at a screen, dive into the app, and search for it yourself… If it works correctly, that’s all the benefits of being connected to your coworkers through an app like Slack, without having to actually use it yourself.
Point to note: You also need to get a separate phone number for the wireless service.
And this is going to kill the smartphone? Really?
Many of the reviewers are sceptical—and for very sound reasons.
One: As we noted, the Ai Pin does not support third party apps—which is a deal-breaker for most. You are instead locked into a subscription plan—which limits you to companies that partner with Humane. The reason: apps offer freedom of choice to the individual user—allowing us to download photo editors, a different email service or games. In fact, most tech regulation is aimed at preventing smartphone makers from preloading their apps on the device.
As Inverse rightly points out:
But why should we give up apps, the thing that turned smartphones into the essential, multifunctional tools we know them to be now? App stores, be it Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, are what allow smartphones to behave like computers… Apps not only fill in the gaps in functionality of your smartphone, they make you more capable too. What you’re able to do out of the box with your phone is very different than what you might do a year from now as you explore new apps.
Also: it isn’t clear how you could play games on the Pin without apps or a screen. We’re guessing that’s a deliberate choice to make it less addictive—but also far less fun.
Two: It’s complicated—and far less intuitive without a screen. Ars Technica points to the steep learning curve:
Not having a screen, or at least not prioritizing the laser projector screen, means you'll be doing a lot of work to understand what the pin is trying to tell you. There are two different lights on the device—a front one and a top one—that each blinks five or six different colors that all communicate some kind of state, so that's 11 color/location combinations to keep track of.
Three: You need to learn a new language to communicate with the Pin. You can’t simply touch something on a screen. Instead, you have to master a series of hand gestures:
Without a touchscreen, input is also an esoteric affair, with seven tap or swipe gestures you can perform on the front of the pin for things like answering a phone call and changing media tracks. Rather than just seeing and tapping things on a screen, the interaction guide reads like you'll be learning a second language.
Four: Sorry, but the Pin is not, in fact, screen-free. It does have a screen—the palm of your hand—which performs poorly in comparison to the smartphone kind. According to the reviewer from FastCompany:
[T]he device’s “Laser Ink Display” projector, which Humane says is the smallest and brightest ever built, is near-illegible when reading its WarGames-green text, or worse, looking at photos on your hand…
While I’m told the projected display automatically scales and rotates, large print text appeared fuzzy to read, and the dense passage of what looked to be a Wikipedia article was illegible. The Pin’s display is fixed in one spot in the air, meaning it isn’t built to follow your hand if you shift.
So this is a big dud…
We don’t really know. As OpenAI founder says, “Plenty of technology that looked like a sure bet ends up selling for 90 percent off at Best Buy.” But the Ai Pin is the first, truly audacious jump in personal tech in years.
Remember Simon? In 1926, Nikolai Tesla predicted a wireless gadget that would allow us to “see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles”—declaring it would be so “simple” that a “man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
Nothing much happened until 1994—when IBM launched Simon—the world’s first smartphone. It was a bit clunky—measuring 8 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 1.5 inches thick. So not exactly pretty:
More astonishingly, Simon had a touchscreen—which you could theoretically control with your finger (but really, a stylus). And it had some apps—a calculator, an address book, a calendar, fax, mail, time and a sketchpad. You can see an extended demo here.
The big bust: Simon was a colossal dud. IBM only sold around 50,000 devices—and it was pulled off the market within six months. One big reason: The crap battery life—which lasted only an hour.
But, but, but: Once Simon was out the stable, there was no looking back. Nokia also pushed out a bulky monster that had email, fax and a browser in 1994. In 2000, Ericsson unveiled the first true smartphone—small and light with access to multiple apps. The same year, Sharp released the first phone that could take photos. And the first camera phone by Sanyo hit the market in 2002. All this leading up to Apple’s iPhone launch in 2007—which transformed the smartphone market once and forever.
The bottomline: Most pioneers tend to be grand failures—celebrated only in retrospect. Even if the Ai Pin fails, it represents the first big leap of imagination in decades. It may not be the next iPhone but it may prove to the new Simon—a harbinger of things to come:
Simon’s short lifespan also illustrates how truly original tech products feed so many other creative efforts, if not those of its creators—at least directly. “The innovations of the Simon are reflected in virtually all modern touchscreen phones,” writes [Microsoft engineer] Bill Buxton.
Wired and New York Times offer a detailed overview of the company—and the Pin’s place in the tech ecosystem. Forbes has more on the founders. For critiques of the Pin, read Fast Company, Inverse and Ars Technica. Bloomberg News and TIME are best on Simon. Thought Company has a lively history of the smartphone. Read The Atlantic for why iPhones aren’t cool anymore.