Oct 4, 2023 - Technology

Companies race to make AI you can wear

Images of three new AI wearables from Rewind, Meta and Humane

Images of three new AI wearables from Rewind, Meta and Humane. Photos courtesy Rewind.ai, Meta, and Justin Shin/Getty Images

Entrepreneurs and tech giants are racing to deliver AI in new devices and gadgets — including smart glasses, pendants and pins — that they hope will challenge the smartphone.

Driving the news: Most entrants in the new AI hardware race work via voice input, foregoing the price and bulk of a large display.

  • Humane: The startup, led by former Apple employee Imran Chaudhri, showed off its AI Pin on a Paris runway this week after previously teasing the device in a TED talk. The wearable uses a projector to allow its simple user interface to appear on a hand or other nearby surface.
  • Rewind Pendant: Rewind.ai is showing off a $59 neck-worn pendant that's designed to record conversations and transfer them securely to a smartphone. Its AI software sorts through and gleans insights from that mass of audio info, creating a sort of searchable database of your life's soundtrack.
  • Meta smart glasses: One of the biggest changes in the updated Ray-Ban models Meta announced last week is that users can converse with an AI chatbot through them. The earlier Ray-Ban Stories models had only limited voice control for tasks like taking a picture or playing music.
  • Tab: Due out next winter or spring, Tab is another smart wearable that "ingests the context" of your daily life by listening in to all of your conversations, according to a video founder Avi Schiffmann posted on X. Schiffmann is best known for creating a COVID dashboard and a short-lived Airbnb-like platform for refugees.
  • Jony Ive: In addition to these announced devices, former lead Apple designer Jony Ive is said to be in talks with SoftBank and OpenAI regarding raising money for an AI hardware effort.

Yes, but: Novel hardware designs are notoriously hard to get right — and the phone, with its ubiquity and built-in cameras and microphones, may be all most users need to harness AI.

Be smart: These smart wearables often look like their less tech-enabled counterparts, raising privacy issues, especially when the devices don't make extremely clear when they are recording.

What they're saying: Tab's Schiffmann told Axios, "Talking to Tab feels like a late night conversation with a friend ... It's a much more natural way of interacting with tech."

  • He also emphasized that the device "does not store transcripts or audio recordings" but instead builds a knowledge base for users.

Between the lines: Meta and Amazon have a particular interest in seeking devices that make the smartphone obsolete, or at least less central to everyone's lives.

  • That's because Google and Apple have long held a duopoly on the smartphone business, controlling what others can and can't do on the devices and taking a significant chunk of the revenue from digital goods and services sold through them.
  • Meta and Amazon tried — and failed — with their own smartphones, and both are determined to own a part of the market for whatever comes after the smartphone.

The big picture: The smartphone has reigned supreme since the early days of the iPhone and Android.

  • New hardware could find a niche even if the phone remains the dominant device.
  • Even older hardware may get a new lease on life thanks to AI. Both Google and Amazon are looking to revamp their smart speaker and smart display products using generative AI to offer a more powerful and flexible interface than what's provided by earlier digital assistants.
  • Because most computing work is done in the cloud, even years-old speakers could theoretically support generative AI.

Of note: Sissie Hsiao, the Google vice president who leads the teams behind Assistant and the Bard chatbot, told Axios she's excited by the hardware innovation, but notes that people go to sleep with their phone, check it when they wake up and carry it with them throughout the day.

  • "I think all exploration is good," Hsiao told Axios this week. "But there's nothing more personal than your phone."
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