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Ai Pin, developed by Humane, explores possibilities beyond the smartphone.

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In the ever-evolving landscape of consumer tech, change is the only constant. The reign of the smartphone, which began with the iconic debut of the iPhone seventeen years ago, is showing signs of fatigue. Despite its enduring popularity, the market has reached a plateau, with sales slowing and even contracting in recent years. This downward trend has left the industry grappling with a fundamental question: what comes next? If there were a simple answer, fortunes would be made overnight.

Smartwatches have enjoyed a surge in popularity, but they are largely seen as supplementary devices, enhancing rather than replacing the smartphone experience. As for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), products like the Meta Quest and Apple Vision Pro have yet to make a definitive impact, with opinions still divided on their long-term potential.

In the summer of 2022, Humane began teasing its existence through enigmatic videos, promising a glimpse into the future. The company pledged an approach deeply rooted in human-centric design, reflected in its very name. Backed by significant funding exceeding $100 million (now $230 million) and featuring an AI component, Humane’s debut product, the Ai Pin, is set to launch this week. It heralds a world where connectivity doesn’t necessitate constant screen fixation. The Ai Pin offers a predominantly hands-free experience—simply tapping the front touch panel activates the system, which then listens, learns, and adapts to user needs.

Beyond the smartphone

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington/TechCrunch

Humane’s timing couldn’t be more opportune. After operating mostly in stealth mode for seven years, its market debut aligns perfectly with the waning excitement surrounding smartphones and the surging interest in generative AI. The company’s impressive credentials have significantly fueled pre-launch anticipation. Co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri boast strong backgrounds at Apple, while OpenAI’s Sam Altman has been an early and enthusiastic supporter.

As enthusiasm for smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home waned in recent years, generative AI platforms such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini have stepped in to fill the void. The allure of inputting a few prompts and witnessing the black box generate a new image, song, or video has captivated audiences, evoking a sense of magic. Consumers are eager to explore the potential impact of this technology on their daily lives.

This is precisely what the Ai Pin offers: a gateway to ChatGPT and similar platforms, conveniently integrated into our attire, with a strong emphasis on meticulously crafted hardware design, reflecting the pedigree of its founders.

Media coverage has often framed the startup’s narrative around two former Apple executives who grew disenchanted with the company’s trajectory. While post-Steve Jobs Apple has seen successes with products like the Apple Watch and AirPods, Tim Cook, though adept at creating wealth, has not been hailed as a visionary on the same level as his predecessor.

In this context, the notion of needing the next Apple to usher in the next revolutionary product gains traction. It’s a narrative that Humane’s founders are keen to embrace, given that the company’s origins trace back to the $2.6 trillion tech giant.

Start spreading the news

Image Credits: Alexander Spatari (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In late March, TechCrunch visited Humane’s New York office, noting a tangible shift from our previous trip to the company’s San Francisco headquarters in late 2023. While the earlier event exuded the frenetic energy of an Apple Store, with a meticulously curated presentation by Bongiorno and Chaudhri followed by interactive stations manned by Humane staff, the atmosphere in Manhattan was markedly more subdued.

The celebratory fervor of the product launch had given way to a more formal environment, as employees focused on final preparations before the product launch. The intervening months had also seen the emergence of competing offerings, further emphasizing that the Ai Pin was not the sole contender in the space.

January witnessed the debut of the Rabbit R1 at CES, offering a handheld approach to generative AI devices. The following month, Samsung heralded the “era of Mobile AI,” leveraging a Google Gemini partnership to revamp its smart assistant Bixby. Intel joined the fray with the introduction of the “AI PC,” while Apple boldly proclaimed the MacBook Air as the “world’s best consumer laptop for AI” in March.

Amidst this competitive landscape, Humane faced challenges, including reports of a minor round of layoffs and a slight delay in preorder fulfillment. Yet, such hurdles are par for the course when launching a first-generation hardware product, particularly under the intense scrutiny experienced by few startups.

During our second meeting with Bongiorno and Chaudhri, we convened around a conference table for an orientation with the device ahead of our review. While I typically decline such meetings post-pandemic, the Ai Pin’s novel paradigm warranted a hands-on session. Additionally, Humane provided a 30-minute introductory video to familiarize users, reflecting the device’s unique nature.

Of greater interest was the opportunity to engage in a comprehensive interview with the founders, which had been limited during our previous encounter in San Francisco. Now that much of the mystery surrounding the product had dissipated, Chaudhri and Bongiorno were more forthcoming about discussing both the product and the company in depth.

Origin story

Humane co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri.

Humane co-founders Bethany Bongiorno and Imran Chaudhri.

The Humane origin story naturally starts at One Infinite Loop. The startup’s founders first crossed paths on Bongiorno’s inaugural day at Apple in 2008, shortly after the launch of the iPhone App Store. By then, Chaudhri had already spent 13 years at the company, having joined during its tumultuous period in the mid-90s before Steve Jobs’ return.

During his 22-year tenure, Chaudhri served as director of Design for both hardware and software, contributing to iconic projects like the Mac and iPhone. Meanwhile, Bongiorno worked as a project manager for iOS, macOS, and the precursor to iPadOS. In 2016, the couple tied the knot and bid farewell to Apple.

“We embarked on a new journey,” recalls Bongiorno, “filled with contemplation about the industry’s trajectory and our own passions.” Initially diving into consulting work, their path took a significant turn after a seemingly ordinary encounter.

Image Credits: Humane

“We were at this dinner, and there was a family sitting next to us,” she recalls. “There were three kids and a mom and dad, and they were on their phones the entire time. It really sparked a conversation about the remarkable tool we built, but also some of the unintended consequences.”

Bongiorno recounts coming home one day in 2017 to find Chaudhri disassembling electronics. He had also drafted a one-page descriptive vision for the company that would later become Humane.

According to Bongiorno, Humane’s initial hardware device remained faithful to Chaudhri’s early concepts. “The vision remains consistent with what we were pitching in the early days,” she notes. This is evident in Ai Pin’s standout feature: a built-in projector that transforms the surface of one’s hand into a makeshift display. It’s an implicit recognition that, despite discussions about the future of computing, screens remain the optimal tool for certain tasks.

Over the next two years, the company delved into exploring potential technologies and crafting early prototypes. In 2018, discussions about the concept began with advisors and friends, before serious work commenced the following year.

Facing the sun

In July 2022, Humane tweeted, “It’s time for change, not more of the same.” Accompanied by a minute-long video, the message resembled both a tagline and a mission statement. The video commenced with a striking scene of an eclipse. A choir sang in a grandiose, almost operatic manner as the camera descended to a crowd. As the moon obscured the sunlight, the faces of the crowd were illuminated by their phone screens. The message was unmistakable.

Amidst the crowd, a young woman in a tank top emerged. Her head lifted, and she gazed directly into the eclipse (not recommended). Lyrics echoed, “If I had everything, I could change anything,” as she moved towards the source of light. Raising her hand to the sky, a green light shaped like the eclipse illuminated her palm. This final scene subtly alluded to the Ai Pin’s projector. The marketing team behind the video recognized that, while somewhat secondary, it was the feature most likely to capture public attention.

The eclipse has become deeply ingrained in the company’s identity as a symbol. The green eclipse on the woman’s hand also serves as Humane’s logo, integrated into the Ai Pin’s design language. A metal version functions as the connection point between the pin and its battery packs.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company showcased its strong commitment to its motif by hosting an event on October 14, 2023, to coincide with a solar eclipse. The Ai Pin is available in three colors: Eclipse, Equinox, and Lunar. The timing of this recent big news push, just days after another North American solar eclipse, is likely not coincidental.

However, it was on the runway of a Paris fashion show in September that the Ai Pin truly made its debut. The world got its first glimpse of the product as it was magnetically attached to the lapels of models’ suit jackets, making a bold statement. Although its founders had departed from Apple several years prior, their dedication to industrial design was evident in creating a product meant to be a fashionable accessory (though individual preferences may vary).

The design has undergone some evolution since its inception. One notable change is the angling of the top of the device, which now houses the sensors and projector. This adjustment ensures that the Pin’s perspective aligns with that of its wearer. An earlier version with a flatter surface unintentionally angled the pin upward when worn on certain chest types. Achieving a more universally flattering design required extensive trial and error with individuals of various shapes and sizes.

“There’s an element of compassion in designing this particular hardware,” says Chaudhri. “It’s quite different from when you have a handheld device. It feels more like an instrument or a tool. But when you’re creating an experience that is more integrated with the body, the design of the device must genuinely consider the wearer. That’s where the compassion comes into play.”

Year of the Rabbit?

Image Credits: rabbit

Competition entered the arena when the Rabbit R1 made its debut at CES on January 9, stealing the spotlight.

CEO and founder Jesse Lyu highlighted the R1’s focus on entertainment but acknowledged its limitations in productivity, stating, “To arrange dinner with a colleague we needed four-five different apps to work together. Large language models are a universal solution for natural language; we want a universal solution for these services — they should just be able to understand you.”

While the R1 boasts a more traditional consumer electronics design, with a handheld form factor, buttons, and a screen, its core functionality aligns closely with Ai Pin. Both devices aim to complement smartphone usage and leverage LLM-trained AI.

The R1’s attractive $200 price point fueled initial excitement, presenting a more accessible option compared to Ai Pin’s starting price of $699. Additionally, the familiar form factor likely reduces the learning curve associated with Humane’s product.

Commenting on the competition, Humane’s Monique Bongiorno sees it as validation for the space, stating, “I think it’s exciting that we kind of sparked this new interest in hardware. I think it’s awesome. Fellow builders. More of that, please.”

However, Bongiorno emphasizes that Rabbit’s product caters to a different use case, requiring a similar level of focus to that of a smartphone. Notably, neither Bongiorno nor co-founder Imran Chaudhri have personally used the R1.

Shortly after Rabbit’s product unveiling, Humane confirmed the layoff of 10 employees, amounting to 4% of its workforce. While a small fraction of the company’s staff, the timing, just months ahead of the product’s official launch, raised eyebrows. Additionally, long-time CTO Patrick Gates transitioned from his C-suite role to an advisory position.

Bongiorno attributes the layoffs to the company’s ongoing evolution, stating, “Like every growing and evolving company, changes are going to happen. It’s actually really healthy and important to go through that process.”

In the subsequent month, Humane announced that pins would commence shipping in mid-April, slightly delayed from the original March schedule. Chaudhri clarified that “shipping” refers to leaving the factory, rather than reaching customers, citing factors such as tariffs and regulations that could affect delivery timelines.

Money moves

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Investors don’t pour $230 million into a startup without expecting a return on their investment. Humane’s strategy for achieving positive cash flow involves implementing a subscription service that is essential for using their product. Priced at $699 with a complimentary 90-day trial, users are subsequently charged $24 per month.

This subscription includes talk, text, and data services provided by T-Mobile, along with cloud storage. Most importantly, it grants access to the Ai Bus, a core component of the device’s functionality. According to Humane, the Ai Bus is a novel AI software framework that brings the Ai Pin to life, eliminating the need to download or manage apps. Instead, it intuitively anticipates user needs, seamlessly connecting them to the appropriate AI services.

Investors are naturally drawn to subscription models, which contribute to consistent revenue streams. Even tech giant Apple has leaned on service revenue amid slowing hardware sales.

While Humane’s CEO, Monique Bongiorno, hints at revenue projections, she refrains from disclosing specific timelines. However, she acknowledges discussions about a potential path to an IPO, underscoring the company’s long-term vision and commitment to growth.

“We have a large roadmap that Imran is really passionate about of where we want to go,” says Bongiorno, referring to Humane’s co-founder Imran Chaudhri. Chaudhri emphasizes that the company has progressed beyond initial sketches, with refined concepts and prototypes signaling their dedication to productizing AI.

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