The year is off to a quick start in terms of new product launches and availability, even leaving aside the usual mid-tier smorgasbord that is CES. Apple just started pre-sales of its
Vision Pro mixed reality headset
, with shipments beginning in early February; meanwhile Samsung debuted the next generation of the only viable iPhone competitor out there, the
. Despite these heavyweights trying to front-run the year, however, a startup’s oddball take on what the future of personal tech might look like is the most exciting thing to happen in gadgets in a long, long while.
I’m talking about the rabbit r1, the AI-powered hardware unveiled with a fairly impressive, if low-budget impression of an old-school Apple keynote in a small conference room deep within the rabbit’s warren of a Las Vegas casino during CES. The r1 deserves praise just for its physical design, which is a tidy bit of kit created in partnership with Teenage Engineering, the gadget ‘it’ brand of young millennials and Gen Z everywhere.
Unlike the Apple Vision Pro, which looks like the lavish, over-slick encumbered bit of technology’s past masquerading as technology’s future that it is, the rabbit r1 has a pared down, satisfying economy that I think comes much closer to what future generations want from their tech. On the functionality side, Vision Pro is a an exercise in UI over saturation; the r1 aims to be as close as you can currently get to having no UI at all.
The premise of the rabbit r1, in case you missed it, is that it does most, if not all, of what your smartphone can do, but it uses AI to accomplish all the tasks in response to natural language queries. So that could be playing music, booking airfare, providing directions, hailing a ride, ordering food, translating in real-time and much more.
There are tons of questions remaining regarding how the rabbit r1 will work in real-world situations, and how rabbit’s business model (which so far seems to only involve selling individual units at a flat price of $199 – without any recurring subscription fees) will work. But the rabbit r1 already has the kind of organic hype that would-be competitors like the Humane AI pin wished they’d been able to drum up with their carefully tuned, but massively overblown protracted promo campaign.
On the other hand, we know quite a lot about how Apple Vision Pro works and performs, thanks to a recently-expanded hands-on preview program that engaged the media and influencers to come and try out the headset in demos occurring in the run-up to today’s pre-order day, and everyone seems more than impressed with the device’s performance and visual prowess. Reactions are more mixed on everything from the complexity of setup, to user interface elements like the visual keyboard, to long-term wearability and comfort.
The rabbit r1, like the Humane AI pin and other AI-first devices starting to come to market doubtless have a ton of kinks to work out before they get to a place where they’re overall useful, but generative AI already shares something in common with the last major computing paradigm Apple revolutionized – the mobile phone. Specifically, it’s being used and appreciated everywhere by average consumers. I’ve lost count of how many people tell me they just use ChatGPT daily for their actual work, who have nothing to do with the technology industry. The reverse is also true: No one I know who isn’t someone professionally connected to tech owns or regularly uses a VR headset of any kind.
Apple made the iPhone when people were already in love with cell phones, and were beginning to fall in love with smartphones. Rabbit is introducing the r1 when people are already in love with AI, as the term applies to large language models like ChatGPT. Apple, meanwhile, is introducing the Vision Pro to a world where a decade or so of trying has utterly failed to create any kind of mass uptake of virtual, mixed or augmented reality headset use.
If Apple is right and ‘spatial computing’ becomes the next big platform shift, I suspect I’ll be too old to care that I was wrong by the time it does. But increasingly, I think companies like rabbit are working with a more realistic and viable version of computing’s future than some of the legacy players out there who are trying, and failing, to shot-call the next big thing.