If You Come at the King

Raymond Wong, reporting for Inverse, “Watch Humane’s Wearable AI Projector in Action”:

Humane, the top-secret tech startup founded by ex-Apple vets Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, just showed off the first demo for its projector-based wearable at a TED talk. Axios’s Ina Fried broke the news, and Inverse has seen a recording of the full TED talk given by Chaudhri.

Journalist Zarif Ali, who had tweeted out an image of Humane’s wearable projecting a phone call function onto Chaudhri’s palm, says the full TED talk video is not slated to become available until April 22.

So the full video should be out tomorrow, but in the meantime, Wong has pulled a bunch of clips. There’s some cool technology being shown, including on-the-fly translation from English to French using an AI-trained version of Chaudhri’s own voice, but what I fundamentally don’t get about Humane is their anti-phone slant. Chaudhri emphasizes that you don’t need a phone to use the unnamed Humane device, but if the device can receive and place phone calls, and has a network connection, must not their device itself be ... a phone? Just a phone in a different form factor.

Back in February when LeBron James broke the all-time NBA scoring title, Chaudhri retweeted someone comparing a photo of James’s record-breaking shot (with a seeming majority of the fans in the background holding their phones to capture the moment — almost all of them iPhones, natch) with Michael Jordan’s iconic 1998 championship-winning shot against the Utah Jazz (with, of course, not a single fan with a phone in hand).1 Chaudhri’s comment on the comparison: “we all deserve better.”

The thought being, I surmise, that Chaudhri thinks something is wrong that so many of us turn to our phones to photograph or film major moments in our lives, rather than just enjoying them through our own senses. I get it to some degree. If I’d been at that Lakers game, my phone would’ve been in my pocket at that moment, not just to absorb the actual game experience, but because I know that no photo I could take could possibly be as as good as those being taken by courtside professional sports photographers. But those thousands of fans who did have their phones out for that moment weren’t thinking “This sucks, I wish I didn’t have to stare at my phone to capture this.” They were thinking “This is awesome and I’m glad I can capture this.

People take their own photos at major events not because they think those will be great photos, but because they’re proof that they were there. Selfies are the new autographs, and a shaky iPhone photo from the perspective of your own seat at the event is the new certificate of attendance.

We still don’t know much about Humane’s device, as Wong’s colleague at Inverse Ian Carlos Campbell notes in this follow-up piece. But everything we do know seems positioned around the notion of relieving us of the burden of being tethered to our iPhones all day every day. The fundamental flaw in Humane’s entire premise, as I see it, is that people don’t feel burdened by their phones. People love them — especially iPhone owners. And those who are ambivalent or even downright antipathetic toward their phones surely aren’t the sort of people who are interested in a newfangled laser-projecting AI-driven chest-badge computer.

I wrote about this all the way back in 2010, in the era of the iPhone 4, when Microsoft debuted a high-budget ad campaign for their answer to the iPhone, Windows Phone 7. The ads were very entertaining — particularly this one — but the whole premise was fundamentally flawed. Microsoft’s message was that if you switched to Windows Phone you wouldn’t need to stare at your phone all the time. The problem is that people stare at their phones all the time not because they have to but because they want to.

Finally, you can replace this thing that you despise” is a powerful marketing message. “Finally, you can replace this thing that you love” is not.

So far, it feels like Humane’s entire premise is founded on that same mistake: building a new device intended to replace our phones, without that new device being able to do any of the dozens of things we love to do on our phones that require a display. Apple Watch and AirPods thrive because they’re satellites to our iPhones, not ostensible replacements. Our iPhones aren’t a burden — they’re a pleasure. I’m not arguing there are no downsides to our collective mass addiction to our phones. There’s undeniably a nostalgic appeal to many aspects of the pre-iPhone age. But the notion of even a single trip to the grocery store without a phone to provide (unlimited!) material to read or watch while I wait at the checkout line seems like veritable torture to me now. Anything that attempts to establish a post-phone beachhead has to do the things we love to do with our phones, or entertain us in new ways that make us forget about them. I don’t see how a laser projector on a chest badge does that.

  1. Not only are there no fans with cell phones in hand in the Jordan photo, there are none with any sort of camera in hand. Cell phone cameras were uncommon in 1998, but regular cameras were not. But before the iPhone age, when such policies became untenable, events like concerts and indoor sporting events banned cameras. Same thing with casinos. And even if the rules didn’t prohibit cameras, people just didn’t have the habit of taking their own photographs. Today we don’t just take photos with our phones instead of with standalone cameras — we take thousands of photos every year that we never would have taken in the first place, because we wouldn’t have had a camera with us. The best camera really is the one you have with you. ↩︎