Humane, the secretive startup founded by ex-Apple software design chief Imran Chaudri, finally went public with Chaudri showing off their device for the first time at the TED conference last week. I’ve seen a recording of the 15-minute presentation, which unfortunately is yet to be officially published online.
Chaudri’s talk is centred on the premise that technology (mainly through the smartphone) has invaded all of our lives too much. The idea is that personalised artificial intelligence can be used to dramatically change how we interact with technology. Rather than proactively opening an app to do something, AI can be an ambient thing that is there when you need it, works in the background of your life, and mostly stays out of your way. To make this a reality, Humane is introducing a new product: a wearable that resembles a rectangular pin badge. Chaudri is wearing one on his jacket pocket during the presentation. He sets out the vision of their product as something that is “screenless, seamless and sensing”.
Chaudri demonstrates the unobtrusive utility of their device by asking it ‘Where can I find a gift for my wife before I have to leave tomorrow?’. The badge audibly responds with a suggestion of a nearby shopping district. It’s a cool demo in that it gives a more useful contextual reply than what we’d expect from a typical response from Siri or a similar voice assistant would give today to that same query, with the Humane system clearly being infused with large language model smarts. (Assuming the demo is legit and not scripted canned responses, of course).
However, I do not see how that demo justifies the form factor of a clip-on screenless badge. In fact, if I wanted to actually go to said shopping mall, I am left wanting a screen to visualise the area on the map and show me directions. Innately, then, I think that a phone with a smarter inbuilt assistant supersedes the Humane product, as does a smartwatch for that matter. Watches have screens but they are just as seamless and subtle as a wearable on the front of your jacket, I’d argue.
Humane’s counter to the visual information problem seems to be the inclusion of a short-throw projector in the badge. This allows the device to beam text and images to a nearby surface. If you are standing upright, away from a table, this means holding up your hand awkwardly in front of you so the badge can project stuff onto it. So, despite the screenless pitch, what they have essentially created is another screen after all; one with unstable reproduction (thanks to your naturally shaky arm/body), relatively low color fidelity and resolution, and uncomfortable ergonomics.
We don’t have much else to go on in terms of technical specification, but Chaudri did stress that the device is meant to be used wholly independently; ‘you don’t need to carry a phone anymore’ was not said, but certainly an implied notion. Maybe there’s room for another wearable accessory in our lives, and if Humane had positioned their product in that vein, I would be far less sceptical. I am not onboard with the presented vision that they are pioneering the primary future of personal computing.