Ai Pin: A new product attracting attention and ridicule

A new tech gadget that’s soon going on sale is receiving a huge amount of attention from the tech community. It debuted at Paris Fashion Week on the lapel of supermodel Naomi Campbell, it was featured in a TED talk watched by tens of thousands, and it’s received $230 million in funding from Silicon Valley insiders. Rarely has a product that does so little been hyped so much.

The product is called Ai Pin from the company Humane with its strange URL: It’s a thin rectangular slab about the size of a pager that clips to your shirt, blouse or jacket, held in place with a magnet that doubles as a battery. It contains a camera, microphone, speaker, cellular radio, and a laser projector that projects a small image onto the palm of your hand, about the size of a watch display, but in monochrome. The Ai Pin is always on waiting for you to interact with it by touching a button.

What’s created so much interest is that it’s the first hardware product built around the new artificial intelligence software such as ChatGPT. It uses AI to formulate responses to questions you ask it or images you place in front of its camera.

The Ai Pin is connected to the cloud, but not to your phone in any way. If you believe some of Humane’s PR, the Ai Pin could even replace your smartphone, although I don’t buy that, and it’s a mistake for the company to even suggest it, because it creates unrealistic expectations.

While it replicates some of the functions of a phone, such as making calls and reading, searching and sending email and messages, it’s missing many of a phone’s features such as a GPS, keyboard, and color display.

And then there’s the cost. The Ai Pin is $699 and up and requires its own cellular phone plan from T-Mobile at $24 per month.

The product’s premise is that AI software is so powerful and all-knowing that by providing a hardware interface to it, it will solve problems and provide assistance beyond what other devices can do. It’s also more passive than the phone, more of a constant companion standing by waiting to be used.

Some of the examples in the company’s promotional video narrated by the husband and wife founders, are simplistic and silly. For example, it shows one of them holding a book up to the camera and asking to buy ta copy, but with no further interaction such as where, how much, etc. Then they hold up a bunch of almonds in front of the camera, asking for the amount of protein in the nuts. A third example is using the Ai Pin as a real-time translator to help you carry on a conversation in a different language. That’s actually pretty cool if it really works with no delays.

The device requires learning an entirely new user interface that includes hand and finger gestures and voice commands, as well as decoding a series of multicolored LEDs on the top edge. Information is delivered to the user through the device’s speaker and projected display.

The Ai Pin’s camera is always pointing directly at others, something that killed Google goggles, because people found it creepy to be facing a camera that could be recording them. Humane says a light on the device will indicate if the camera is recording, but how would most know that?

The company goes to great lengths to compare itself with Apple, because its two founders and many of its employees are former Apple employees. The most noticeable similarities are the fancy packaging and a range of costly accessories.

I’ve seen hundreds of products, some I’ve designed over my forty years in product development and others I’ve reviewed in my newspaper column. I think I have a pretty good sense of what will succeed and what will fail, much as a doctor has the ability to identify medical quackery when he sees it.

As hard as I have tried to give it the benefit of the doubt – including speaking with an investor and couple of the tech reporters that have seen the device close-up – I’m pretty confident that this product will fail and and be a big embarrassment to all those involved.

Humane has created a costly product that’s intended to solve problems few have or care about. As for the use of AI software to provide more intelligent answers, that’s already coming to our smartphones. The Ai Pin seems to be the tech version of the emperor with no clothes.

by Phil Baker