User Interfaces November 2023 Viewpoints
Voice Assistant Smart Pin
By Charlotte Garrud
In November 2023, portable device startup Humane launched their new portable device—a smart badge. The "Humane Ai Pin" is an innovative take on what a user's main everyday portable device could look like; it incorporates several relatively commonplace interfaces such as a voice assistant, gesture and touch controls and a small monochrome laser projector, intended to display information on a user's palm. The device also incorporates a digital camera.
The device is an innovative approach to a portable device in as much as it makes little use of display technologies, instead leaning on its AI voice assistant as the primary interface. However, unlike voice assistant devices like Amazon's Echo line of smart speakers, the Pin only operates using a cellular connection, rather than enabling users to connect it via Wi-Fi, meaning that users have to pay a $25 monthly cellular subscription in order to use the device.
Often technological innovations take the form of combining already existing technologies in interesting and useful ways; a classic example being the first generations of touch-screen smartphones. Humane appears to be taking a similar approach with its Ai Pin. That said, the company's approach seems to raise more questions than it answers.
The Humane Ai Pin is clearly intended as a day-to-day wearable, but voice assistants are currently mostly used in users' homes, which are relatively quiet environments, as opposed to, say, on public transport, in the street or in an office. In the latter environments, even if the device can handle the background noise, users may feel uncomfortable speaking to it. In addition, Ai Pin's built-in camera could face pushback in a similar way that Google's first-generation augmented reality headsets faced criticism (for example, about invasive video recordings). These challenges mean the Ai Pin has to both establish itself in an unconventional marketplace (sitting, seemingly, somewhere between a smart speaker and a smart watch) and also have users embrace two key aspects of its design that may be socially uncomfortable for either them or those around them.
Voice assistants are an extremely popular interface for device manufacturers to incorporate into their offerings, seemingly taking the place of touchscreen interfaces that were becoming near ubiquitous a few years ago. Operating a voice assistant with a monthly subscription could, at least, address one of the major challenges that has been impacting other voice assistant operators; that these systems are currently expensive to operate and seemingly difficult to monetize (See, for example, "Can Voice Assistants be Profitable?" in the April 2023 Viewpoints). However, such monetisation will only work if enough users actually want to use the device.
Relevant Areas to Monitor
Conversational Speech Interaction
Speech interfaces for smartphones, tablets, and smart-home devices are increasingly common but often offer limited transactional dialogues. Advances in machine learning and natural-language processing promise to enable new conversational-AI systems that imitate natural human dialogues and enable complex interactions.
Wearable technologies—including smartwatches, smart clothing, AR headsets, and hearables—are enabling new ways for users to interact with devices and software. Currently, developers are incorporating health sensors and activity- and health-tracking software into devices. Such devices may one day enable advanced interfaces.
Opportunities in the Following Industry Areas
- Internet of Things