Humane AI Pin review: A promising mess you don’t need yet

Humane AI Pin review: A promising mess you don’t need yet

SAN FRANCISCO — Our phones constantly clamor for our attention, and some people — myself included — are getting tired of it.

We’re more than 15 years into the age of the modern, all-screen smartphone, and companies big and small are busy reimagining what we might want to use next.

Meta has AI sunglasses that can recognize objects around you. The start-up Rabbit has an AI handheld that can learn to interact with apps and services for you. And former Apple design chief Jony Ive is raising money to build some kind of secretive AI companion gadget.

Or you could put on Humane’s AI Pin, a $699 wearable with a touch pad, a camera and a laser projector you stick to your shirt. It’s not meant to replace your phone, but Humane thinks you could live a little more in the moment when you’re asking an AI to answer questions and text people instead of staring at a screen again.

I’ve spent the last two weeks testing the Pin to see if it could possibly live up to the hype. Here’s how it went and what you need to know.

First, here’s how the AI Pin works

If you’ve ever watched Captain Picard tap his combadge to talk his colleagues on Star Trek, congratulations: You basically already know how to use the AI Pin.

You’re meant to wear the Pin high up on your chest, so you can quickly reach over and press its touch pad — that turns on its microphone so you can ask something.

(For what it’s worth, Humane President Imran Chaudhri told me the company doesn’t “use any of your data in any of our training or training of other models,” unless you view your Pin’s activity online and choose to leave feedback.)

When you want to read an incoming message or fiddle with the Pin’s settings, you hold your hand up in front of the Pin so the projector can beam its interface onto your palm. To interact with items that appear on your palm, you’re supposed to tilt your hand around to highlight them and pinch your fingers Vision Pro style to “click” on them.

If this all sounds pretty neat, well, it is. And Humane is right about one thing: Interacting with a device like this feels surprisingly natural, to the point where I sometimes find myself reaching for the Pin to ask a question even when I’m not wearing it.

But using the Pin can get frustrating, fast. Take those tilt and pinch gestures: They’re easy to understand, but hard to master. Even after two weeks, I still find myself struggling to select just the right menu options.

Here’s another catch: The projector is basically unreadable when you’re in the sun. Summer’s just around the corner, and it’s sure to offer plenty of warm days I don’t want my phone to get in the way of, but the Pin is much less useful in broad daylight.

Speaking of warmth, the Pin starts to overheat pretty quickly when you’re making back-to-back requests or using the Pin’s projector for too long.

When that happens, don’t be surprised when the Pin cuts off contact for a while as it cools off. This has happened four or five times in two weeks, at least once when it was just charging from one of its magnetic booster batteries. That’s not great, especially since you’ll have to snap on another booster to use the Pin for a full day.

Let’s be clear here: No one, not even the folks at Humane, think the Pin is going to replace your smartphone. But it does act like one sometimes.

You have to shell out $24 each month to use the Pin, and part of that cost gives it a line of T-Mobile service for making calls, sending messages and accessing the internet away from home.

Phone calls generally sound pretty good through the Pin’s built-in speaker, but if you’re around more than a few people, the sound it produces is easily drowned out. (Connecting a pair of Bluetooth headphones, however, really helps.)

Texting is trickier. Unless you specifically tell the Pin you’re dictating the contents of a message — something that’s easy to forget when you’re just trying to contact someone — the Pin has this weird tendency to truncate some messages and pretend swear words don’t exist.

Here’s an example: One day, I asked the Pin to send a message to a friend saying “I’m tired of this [expletive] San Francisco weather and the food.” (Neither of these things are even close to true, for the record.)

Instead, the full message he received said “Of this San Francisco weather and the food.” My friend was a little confused, to say the least.

Also, think about the services you rely on every day through your phone and pick three of them. Odds are, the Pin can’t connect to any of them.

Right now, all it can do is pull contacts from Apple, Google and Microsoft accounts, and play music in Tidal. Humane says it’s working to widen the Pin’s set of tools, but those changes are going to take time — and buy-in from companies that believe in the Pin’s promise.

Oh, and the camera? At best, it’s hit-or miss. In daylight, the results can be pleasant enough, but if you’re anywhere dim, expect to see lots of grain and blurry faces.

The idea of a less intrusive kind of camera is a powerful one, but if you want a visual record of your life you might actually want to revisit, you’re better off sticking to your phone for photos and video.

At its best, the Pin is a sort of speed dial button to a question-and-answer hotline with an AI on the other end. And on the whole, it worked pretty well.

When I sat down to watch “The Normal Heart” and discovered that former New York mayor Ed Koch was gay, the Pin correctly offered a bit of insight into his only long-term relationship.

But it still gets some factual things wrong. It claimed, for example, that some ingredients in Twinkies have been banned by the state of California. (That’s not true, but a local lawmaker is crusading against one of the dyes used in those treats.)

Even though the Pin’s answers are more correct than not, I still feel like I have to fact check them. And if that’s the case, why shouldn’t I just pick my up phone in the first place?

You’ll also need to be careful about how you talk to it. Small differences in the way you structure your request mean the difference between success and sheer confusion.

And even when the Pin knows exactly what you’re talking about, it produces results that are far from helpful. Just recently, my fiancée and I were figuring out an order for fancy disposable flatware for a pre-wedding reception cocktail hour.

It sounded a little like a word problem so I asked the Pin: “Plates come in packages of 200. Forks come in packages of 150. How many packages of plates and forks do I need to buy to wind up with an equivalent number of plates and works?”

A little arithmetic gives us the answer: 3 packs of plates, and 4 packs of forks. Simple. Instead, the Pin explained calmly and at length about how one might solve this equation, without ever actually solving it.

Humane has a clear plan for making the Pin more useful such as working on features to identify objects with the camera, track your nutrition and connect to other services you rely on. I’m looking forward to trying them out when they arrive, because — when everything works the way it’s supposed to — there’s a glimmer of a good product here.

If there’s a lesson here, though, it’s that rather than splurging on a new device that promises to fix our problems we may be better off forcing ourselves to use the ones we have more judiciously.

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