6 Reasons Why AI Gadgets Shouldn’t ‘Just Be an App’

AI gadgets like the Rabbit R1 and Humane Ai Pin would instantly fail if they were just another app.

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Humane Ai Pin and Rabbit R1 are the first of a new wave of AI gadgets
Photograph by Raymond Wong

We’re now at the beginning of the AI gadget era (one that might never be “finished”). Humane released its Ai Pin that clips onto your clothes, Rabbit launched its R1 last week, and there’s a whole wave of AI-powered devices from the Limitless Pendant to Open Interpreter’s 01 Light that are jockeying to become The Next Big Thing In Tech.

It’s clear from first impressions and reviews that AI gadgets like the Ai Pin and the R1 came out earlier than they should have. They’re buggy or missing features that were originally promised as a reason why these devices would be better than a smartphone running an AI chatbot app like ChatGPT, Gemini, or Claude.

The general consensus seems to be that these AI gadgets could “just be an app” on your phone. If you think about it, many devices with a single purpose or only a handful of features could be an app or have been replaced by an app (MP3 and MP4 players, calculators, flashlights come to mind), but that doesn’t mean standalone hardware shouldn’t exist for the people who prefer it over tapping on a touchscreen.

It’s inevitable that many (if not all) of the AI features that give the Ai Pin and R1 reasons to exist will be baked into phones, but let me tell you why AI shouldn’t just be another app.

6. We Finally Have New Form Factors

Photograph by Jake Kleinman

The modern smartphone — as the iPhone ushered in — has reached its final form. Sure, we now have ones that fold in half in book-style and flip-style designs, but they are still touchscreen rectangles at the end of the day. It has been like this for 17 years.

AI has opened the door for companies to experiment with alternative form factors because the primary input (voice) is a shift away from apps on a touchscreen. It’s going to be messy just because everyone is shoving AI into whatever they can fit it in, but damn it, it’s interesting as hell seeing how this all plays out. The Ai Pin is a frickin’ Star Trek combadge with a gesture-controlled laser projector. The Rabbit half-a-phone has an analog scroll wheel and a motorized camera. The Limitless Pendant is a magnetic clip. And if you really want to throw it in, the second-gen Meta Ray-Ban Smart Glasses are finally delivering on the whole smart/camera glasses vision (and hopefully it’s a real stepping stone to lightweight augmented reality glasses).

An AI app maintains the smartphone status quo. I’m not saying the smartphone will lose its status as the center of our lives (it won’t and it won’t be replaced anytime soon), but these new form factors — experimental as they are — at least bring some much-needed variety to consumer tech form and function. Let the experimental phase flourish, I say. Gadgets have been in Apple’s aluminum shadow for too long.

5. Competing In App Stores Is Suicide

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It’s almost impossible for a new app (let alone one that the entire industry is cranking out) to stand out in the App Store or Google Play Store. From a pure business standpoint, it’d be foolish to release Yet Another AI App, hoping to differentiate itself from the hundreds of other AI chatbot apps already in the stores. Maybe an AI cracks the top 10 list, but good luck trying to stay there. New apps rise and fall on the app stores quickly. Unless your AI app does something that ChatGPT doesn’t, it’s a losing game. Putting AI in hardware at least gives people another reason to be interested. You’re not just buying another service, you’re getting something tangible, something cool-looking, something fun to use.

4. AI Hardware Is Faster

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Let’s set aside the early bugs and issues that seem to be the unfortunate norm for AI gadgets like the Ai Pin and Rabbit R1. But when they work (and they’re working way more like they should have in the weeks post-launch), engaging with AI really is faster and more intuitive than using an AI app on your phone.

On both the Ai Pin and Rabbit R1, you simply press tap and then talk. The R1 is the faster AI device, but Humane has also reduced the time it takes for the AI to return a response in software updates (and hopefully it gets even faster and narrows the gap with the R1 even further). The speediness beats unlocking a phone, finding an AI app, tapping to open it, then typing in a prompt or tapping another mic button to start.

Shaving off a few seconds may not seem significant, but I liken it to setting up a smart home with a device like an Amazon Echo and automating a routine such as turning on your lights as soon as you walk in through your door. Could you just flip the light switch? Yes, but if you have to do that many times a day, the saved time adds up. Once you reach another level of convenience, doing repetitive operations feels like being knocked back to the Stone Age.

3. No Distractions From Notifications and Other Apps

Photograph by Raymond Wong

I have nothing against apps, but they are designed to suck up your attention for as long as possible. There are certainly ways to reduce the attractiveness of opening addictive apps like TikTok or Instagram or Reddit, like making your whole phone OS black and white, but willpower is a hard thing to manage!

With only AI software, it’s just another app on your phone, but once you’re using your phone, it’s so easy to get absorbed by notifications or jump to another app. Then, boom, the next thing you know, you’ve spent two hours reading about Game Boy mods on Reddit. The simplicity and limitations of AI gadgets — especially small ones with baby batteries and tiny screens and very basic control inputs — are strengths. You use AI to get an answer or do something, and then you’re done. No doom-scrolling. No trying to juggle five things at once. The same way retro handhelds like Anbernic’s many RG35XX devices are having a moment even though you can download an emulator app like Delta on your phone, there’s appeal in “dumber” non-smart software.

2. AI Apps Won’t Get Access to Your Most Personal Data

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The biggest thing that people who say AI can “just be an AI” don’t realize is that it can’t just be an app — at least not if you want the AI to be a real assistant that knows and learns everything you do to better help do things for you. The reason why Humane and Rabbit made hardware is because you need to own the whole experience. For Humane, Ai Pin features like “Catch Me Up,” which summarizes your phone calls and text messages (and email one day and other notifications and app or service information), cannot exist without system-level access to the phone dialer and texts (hence why a new phone number is required).

Apple, Google, Samsung, or any phone maker that cares about privacy and security at all will never allow a third-party AI app like ChatGPT or Microsoft’s Copilot to get access and control core phone functionality like the dialer or built-in SMS/MMS/RCS or system controls. That’s just not going to happen, and the only way it ever will is if/when the phone makers build AI directly into their software. They have the keys to certain doors and they’re not making copies for anyone else. Without a key, third-party AI apps will be limited in how much they know, which means they’ll never be as intelligent as they could be if they’re paired with dedicated hardware they control. AI companies like OpenAI know this. Why do you think OpenAI has tapped former Apple chief design officer Jony Ive to work on an “iPhone of artificial intelligence?” Hardware with deep system-level access is key to AI devices being useful.

1. Specific Hardware Is Fun

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Don’t lie to yourself; we’ve all felt bored by our phones and apps. I’m not saying new phones have nothing going for them (they do), but the improvements are iterative and everyone, including the phone makers know it. They’re mostly just bigger and brighter screens, larger batteries, and better cameras. Cool — so little reason to upgrade unless your phone breaks.

So it baffles me when there are new companies — with ambitious ideas, maybe too ambitious ones — that are out there making new hardware and consumers are slamming them for trying. I think it’s great that there are now weird, new devices, in refreshing colors and materials (remember that time?) that do not ascribe to the now boring minimalism that, with all due respect, Jony Ive heralded in.

Nobody is saying the Laser Ink Display projector and hand-based gesture controls on the Ai Pin are perfect. Nor is anybody saying the scroll wheel on the R1 is ideal. But they are new and fun ways to interact with a user interface rather than just another tap or swipe on a touchscreen. Nothing loves to tout how it’s on a mission to “make tech fun again” but it’s mostly been with aesthetics like transparent design not with new computer interaction or input.

The same way an instant camera like the Fujifilm Instax Mini 99 is fun to shoot with or a Tamagotchi (yes, Bandi is still making new ones all the time) is fun to play with, AI gadgets like the Ai Pin and R1 are a breath of fresh air in what has been staleness in consumer tech.

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