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Welcome to the Hardware Renaissance
023. A new era for contextual computing
Hey, friends—welcome back to online-offline, a newsletter about technology, culture, and the future. Hello to new subscribers! I’m glad you’re here. This week, some thoughts about contextual computing, the center of hardware innovation. With that said, online-offline is meant to be a conversation, so do also reply with your thoughts/questions. And if you haven’t already, consider supporting my work by subscribing below.
What an exciting week for personal hardware!
Humane debuted their Ai Pin at Paris Fashion Week with Coperni.1 If you’re a fashion fan, you’ll remember Coperni for spray painting a little white dress on Bella Hadid a few months ago—experimenting with new tech is their thing. I wish the Humane debut was similarly interactive. Other people thought the debut didn’t make a big enough splash, but it felt intentional for the Ai Pin to feel like part of a garment like a broach.
Rewind Pendant also debuted. It’s a wearable that captures what you say and hear in the real world. The company says it’s privacy-first. It offers features to ensure no one is recorded without their consent and stores recordings locally only. It looks like an amulet and hangs from your neck.
And then there’s Tab, another amulet that you can talk to. It computes the way you think. In the demo, founder Avi Schiffmann asks the device to recall dinner conversations and a diet recommendation. The responses are displayed in a chatbot/app UI.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sam Altman and Jony Ive, former chief design officer at Apple, are allegedly joining forces to build a consumer device for Open AI.
There are many other device announcements this year from Meta to neuro startups—AI has revitalized how we think about form factor and personal computing. We can and should go beyond mobile phones.
Yet, the question is … do people want this?
The popularity of products like AirPods, smartwatches, and even Tesla shows that people are ready for new computing experiences, especially if they take natural form factors. We’re slowly inching toward a world of ubiquitous technology. Google Glass was a casualty along the way; people had privacy and safety concerns with the device. These concerns will persist but can be mitigated, especially if wearable devices create a better world than the mobile phone.
What really matters? Contextual computing
The Pendant and Tab are new versions of a product that’s had many lives since 1994. The first personal assistant, the “Forget-me-not”, recorded people’s interactions and stored the information in a database. Beyond the recordings, the device had limited context about where people were located, with whom, or why. The Forget-me-not couldn’t provide its users with personalized information or experiences. Well, that’s all changed thanks to AI developments over the last decade.
The most interesting thing about the devices that launched this week isn’t what they look like or how they were debuted.
These devices are important because they will usher in a new era of contextual computing. They contain sensors that can capture data about the physical world and use NLP, computer vision, and machine learning to capture and process data to build contextual understanding.
According to computer scientist Anind Dey, “A device is context-aware if it uses context to provide relevant information and/or services to the user, where relevancy depends on the user’s task.” When Humane previewed the Ai Pin at Ted earlier this year, the device illustrated this definition. Let’s break it down:
Task: “Can I eat this?”
Context: The user holds a chocolate bar, allowing the Ai Pin to identify the relative object. The device knows the user’s food preferences/allergies.
Relevant information: The device replies that the user should avoid the chocolate bar because it contains an ingredient they have an intolerance to, thus completing the task
I wonder if the other devices that launched this past week will similarly be context-aware. They should! Especially when we’re at a point where devices have memory and can anticipate and fulfill users' needs, give personalized recommendations, and adapt to users' changing needs and preferences over time.
The next era of software, driven by hardware
“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
The legendary Mark Weiser was on to something when he said this in 1991. We are moving beyond iPhones, which are relatively ubiquitous, to wearables, which can remind us when we’ve sat for too long and even track our sleeping patterns. Devices are starting to form connections and deduce like humans.
Our goal should be to make hardware disappear. We shouldn’t even have to unlock a phone for example—having to type a 6-digit code or to hold up a device for a face ID is friction. Clicking the ChatGPT app and typing a prompt is also friction. Hardware should be almost ambient, seamlessly integrated, and integral to our lives. Like the chair. Then we’ll know it is really successful.
+ The Computer for the 21st Century by Mark Weiser
+ Towards a Better Understanding of Context and Context-Awareness by Anind K. Dey and Gregory D. Abowd
Thank you for reading! Special thanks to Laurent for the artwork; and Tammy for the conversation that inspired this piece. If you’re new to online-offline, make sure to subscribe.
Disclaimer: Humane is a Kindred Ventures investment and portfolio company. All views and opinions expressed in this essay are my own.