Humane Wants to Go Screenless

If you haven’t heard, an ex-Apple employee started a company called Humane and their stealth product is a screenless device. A replacement for the phone. They want us to go screenless, but does anyone else?

Here’s the demo, which was announced at TED.

The idea of “invisible” or “seamless” tech is exciting, but not new. No one wants their product to require lots of mental overhead, so technology innovators have spent decades trying to figure out how to get the user interface out of the way, and we’ve made good strides in that direction.

So the question is not whether or not we want technology to fade into the background, or be in service to us, because we all agree on that. The question is how to best deliver this experience, and Humane has announced their answer, a little projector you clip to your shirt, paired with headphones.

Before I go on, I should say that I have a reputation with my friends and coworkers for being excited about new technologies. Some people — most people, in my experience – are cautious about new technologies and products. I tend to be less cautious and more excited.

So speaking as someone who delights in how new ideas can change things for the better, and someone who has spent years of his career working on the very problems Humane is trying to solve, here’s what I think: they’re missing the bigger picture because they think screens are bad and the solution is pinning a little projector to our clothing. I believe history will prove them wrong.

Mr Chaudhri’s demo features four things:

  • Receiving a phone call without a screen (light is beamed onto his hand)
  • Asking for a place to shop nearby
  • Speaking in English and hearing it translated into another language
  • Holding up a candy bar and asking if he can eat it

Now let’s pull apart the technologies that are allowing this to happen:

  • Cellular (data and voice)
  • GPS
  • AI
  • Language translation
  • Image recognition

And let’s consider the je ne sais quoi that pulls it all together. Of course it’s amazing to not have to launch an OS, find an app, and launch it. Of course it’s amazing to have it always listening, always viewing, and always connected. These are not a small things that you can wave away and claim that using a phone can match. An experience like this could be a real breakthrough, and that matters. But there are other things to consider, and that’s where my educated concerns come in. I used to work on Windows Phone, where designers proposed this vision one hundred different times. But there are certain limitations that need real solutions before I can get excited:

  • Battery life is never good
  • Software via voice is clumsy
  • Why use this if you have a phone? (and AirPods)

Even if your device has infinite battery life, and even if you appreciate being able to talk to a powerful AI to answer quick questions, no one is reasonably arguing that you wouldn’t also carry your phone. Which means you’d be carrying your phone, plus your headphones, plus this new projector thing, at all times. And charging everything at night. And that’s before factoring in how much it all costs, and presumably paying for a cellular plan.

That single issue is by itself a huge hurdle, and we haven’t even gotten to battery life and clumsy audio UX yet. Unfortunately those are even harder nuts to crack. I know, because I have pitched these same concepts. One of my favourite demos from 2012 was a “remember that” phrase that would jump back 15 seconds in time and take an audio and video clip of whatever was just happening in a meeting, much like Humane is describing. So I get the promise. But I’m also intimately familiar with the technological limitations getting in the way of it becoming reality.

The promise of invisible technology is wonderful. The premise of doing it with a little projector on your shirt that expects it to replace your phone is an utter non-starter.

On the other hand, if you’re Apple, you have all the pieces to make something like this work. But guess what – it’s still going to involve a phone.

More accurately, an iPhone.