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2024: The Year of AI Wearables?

Hardware is the latest battlefront in the AI wars

By
Fawzi Ammache
January 12, 2024

The next great AI Assistant

The wild success of generative AI applications in the past year caught our existing devices sleeping at the wheel. Our smartphones, laptops, and even smart speakers weren’t infused with the latest AI smarts that we experienced in apps like ChatGPT, Midjourney, HeyGen, and others.

For many companies and entrepreneurs, they see a golden opportunity to create an AI-first device that can outshine the everyday smartphone.

The dream? To create an AI assistant that's with you all the time. A buddy you can talk to, command, and rely on for anything – more personal than the smartphone in your pocket. A JARVIS with you at all times.

The success of the next great AI assistant hinges on two things:

  • Technical capability: what the assistant can or can’t do
  • Ease of access: how easily we can access the assistant in the moment we need it

Consider Alexa and ChatGPT.

Alexa's everywhere – in speakers, TVs, lights, even microwaves. Easy access is its thing.

ChatGPT, though, wowed everyone with what it can do, like crafting stories and business plans. But there’s friction when accessing it: you need to open a browser or an app and type out your detailed prompt.

It’s not as easy as shouting “Alexa” from any corner of your house and asking for something. But ChatGPT’s technical abilities were so impressive that the friction was worth it and it’s arguable the most successful tech product in history.

But what if someone builds a device that combines Alexa's accessibility with ChatGPT's smarts?

The Hardware Battlefront

AI's much smarter now than when Siri or Alexa first came out. We're seeing companies rush to create AI-first gadgets:

Humane’s Ai Pin ($699): a device you clip on your chest that doesn’t require connecting it to a smartphone. Also, it looks like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Watch the demo

Humane AI Pin is Finally Here: The AI Device Set to Replace iPhones! -  YouTube

Meta’s Ray-Ban smart glasses ($299): Meta’s new smart glasses now lets you talk to Meta AI, the company’s own AI assistant, on-the-go. The company is clearly leaning into making its own devices, after having its destiny (and revenue) controlled by Apple and Google’s app stores for so long.

Meta and Ray-Ban Release New Smart Glasses Equipped with AI and Live  Streaming Features - UPA TIK Undiksha
  • Tab ($600): worn around the neck and it listens to all your conversations and uses them to continuously build and expand a knowledge graph about you. You can ask questions through the Tab smartphone app at a later time. Watch the demo
Image
Tab Pendant, shared by founder Avi Schiffmann on X (Source)
  • Rewind Pendant: a pendant worn around your neck, like Tab. It also captures what you say and hear all day, and then transcribes, encrypts, and stores it locally on your phone. The company says that their device can only record the person wearing it, while ignoring what everyone else is saying since they didn’t consent to being recorded.
The Rewind Pendant keeps tabs on everything you say and hear -  TheFutureParty
  • An alleged secret hardware device discussed by Sam Altman and Jony Ive 👀

The Information reported that Sam Altman and Jony Ive, the guy who designed the iPhone (and has a very soothing voice), have been discussing building a new AI hardware device. It’s still unclear what the device will be, but it’s odd given that Altman is one of Humane’s largest investors and has invested in three of their funding rounds…

Former Apple design chief Jony Ive and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in talks for  secret AI hardware project - BusinessToday

Can anything really beat the smartphone?

Notice the form factor of each of those devices.

They’re trying to beat the smartphone by taking the shape of something you wear regularly and is attached to you all day: glasses, pendants, necklaces. I’m sure we’ll see more form factors like rings and watches soon.

This is how these devices can achieve the “ease of access” criteria for success.

While devices like Tab and Rewind still rely on a smartphone app for the information retrieval and data storage, Humane wants to show us it’s a strong, independent AI device that doesn’t need a smartphone. It comes it with built-in connectivity (via a T-Mobile partnership) and has multiple “AI experiences” built-in, meaning you don’t need to download any apps on it.

Some interesting use cases that were demoed from all these companies:

  • Live translation of conversations while you’re speaking to someone in a foreign country
  • Information retrieval from prior conversation (“What did my wife say I should pick up from the store?”)
  • Shopping in-store and comparing prices online at other stores

Is the time right?

Seeing wild new ideas and innovations always reminds me of the MAYA design principle.

MAYA = Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable

The principle is about designing for the future, while balancing it with your users’ present reality. It’s a term coined by Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer behind the design of the Coca-Cola bottle and other products from airplanes to household appliances. My friend Patrick Morgan has a great post on MAYA if you’re interested in diving deeper.

Many have tried and failed to create a wearable with the same success and timelessness as the smartphone. Is it the same story all over again?

We know that AI is here to stay for the foreseeable future, but I have so many questions on my mind:

  • Are we ready for AI wearables that are attached to us all day while recording everything we say?
  • Do these devices veer off too much from our ingrained behaviours and habits of using and interacting with our smartphones?
  • Is it too early to replace screens with voice-only interfaces?
  • AI has gotten a lot better, but is it good enough for us to make that leap to AI-first wearables now?
  • Does the price point justify the value today?
  • Can’t Apple and Google just make their assistants way better and make a separate AI wearable obsolete? They already make phones, wearables, and apps that billions of people use.

Speaking of Google, the VP who leads the teams behind Assistant and Bard, Sissie Hsiao, seems unfazed by the new wave of AI wearables in her conversation with Axios:

"I think all exploration is good. But there's nothing more personal than your phone."

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Fawzi Ammache
Founder, Year 2049

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