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What do Amtrak and the Humane AI pin have in common?

A wanton disregard of the customer experience.

One of them, at least, has enough going for it to survive despite their oversights. But with both, I was left wondering, “WHY?”

Amtrak is the brand you probably know better, so let’s start there.

Last weekend, I went on my third overnight Amtrak trip in the past year or so, all with my daughter who, last spring, suddenly wanted to take a train trip longer than 24 hours. That led us to Fargo, North Dakota – naturally. We then did another trip covering DC, West Virginia, New Orleans, and Chicago all by rail. Many packages of butter cake were consumed. Too many.

This latest trip was ‘easier’ – straight down by the Pacific on the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles for a solid 35 hours.

The train’s name is somewhat misleading, and I’m not sure if it’s more frustrating going south or north. As I was on the former route, it was beautiful passing through Oregon’s cloud forests and northern California farmland. But I didn’t get a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean until I was on the train for 30 hours. At least going south, it’s something to look forward to (I was mesmerized by those views); if you’re going north, you’re spending about 7/8’s of the trip wondering if that’s the last you’ll see of the coast (yup, sorry). Much of the rest of the trip still gives you plenty to look at, but there’s a reason the coast is what gives the line its name.

What Amtrak lacks isn’t scenery. They neglect so many customer experience fundamentals. For these overnight trips, I’ve done roomettes – tiny cabins where you better be best friends with whoever travels with you because you’re going to get to know them way better. They’re the perfect way to make New Yorkers’ bedrooms feel palatial.

For the Coast Starlight, I managed to submit a bid for an upgraded cabin that was accepted. I got the room, not the roomette, and for double the retail price, it should be double the space. In realtor parlance, the room was still “cozy.”

It’s not the tight quarters that bothered me, especially since I’d been on that rodeo, I mean railroad, before. Caveat emptor on that one.

It’s the disregard for all the little touches. There are a number of buttons and knobs in the room. None of them work. They literally do nothing. One adjusts the temperature. Another changes the volume of the speaker. Press them or turn them and nothing happens. And this has been true in all the cabins I’ve stayed in on Amtrak. They’re decorative.

The speaker didn’t work either. It worked, barely audibly, in the hallway outside the room. When important announcements were made, we passengers would stand outside our rooms to listen to them. This has been a consistent issue too.

It feels like a lack of care.

It’s also hard to know what you’re buying when you book one of these rooms. To really see the cabins, you need to visit blogs of others’ travelogues. There’s very little info on Amtrak’s own site.

Worse still, we’ve so far encountered two different kinds of trains. In certain cabins, there’s a window by where the top bunk unfolds, giving more room for a little person to sit in bed and take in the views. We’ve only seen these on the NY-Chicago line.

The other trains had what we wound up calling “coffins” – there’s less space, and there are no windows, so it’s like traveling the country in an MRI machine with an opening on one side. When you look at photos of rooms and rommettes relating to your trip, they’re all the same regardless of the different train lines – and they’re actually all the coffins. Retailers will now shoot dozens of photos of a single product – why can’t Amtrak post a few of each kind of room?

There’s so much more that could be done to modernize and revitalize the experience, and that means more than adding wifi to trains (the Coast Starlight doesn’t have it at all). Why not screens in the room with useful intel on the route, the landmarks outside, and amenities? Why not any attempt at entertainment? What about a little Amtrak souvenir for kids, in the same way airlines give young passengers wing pins? Despite all the hassles of air travel, airlines could never get away with what Amtrak does, and how little it does for the customer experience.

And it’s a shame because, cramped as it is, and hit or miss as the menu might be (a whole other story), and hit or miss as the staff might be (I’ve had many of the best customer service experiences on trains from their crew, but also a couple of the worst), it’s still a striking way to see the country.

Humane, however, is the misnomer to end all misnomers. What the actual inhumane device is this?

For those who’ve missed the scathing reviews (Marques Brownlee called it “the worst product I’ve ever reviewed… for now” and said “almost no one should buy it” – though he didn’t need the “almost”), it’s a magnetic pin. With AI. And a camera. And voice control. And it projects green monochrome images, Apple IIe style, onto the palm of your hand.

Wearing my new pin!

It took my daughter about 3.5 seconds of unboxng this to think I got rooked here, and not just because it starts at $699 (my style was $799), plus a $24/month subscription. That’s $1,000+ for the first year alone.

I think the business model involves getting people to buy it, and then when someone throws it across the room in frustration during the onboarding, the devices will be so damaged that they can’t be returned.

(Note to Humane’s customer service team processing my return: I did not actually do this! My pin is in great condition! Except that it doesn’t seem to do any of the things it’s supposed to! But that’s your fault, not mine!)

Humane’s pin involves using a series of hand gestures that take so much finesse and coordination, I could be fluent in American Sign Language before mastering its handful of gestures and device taps.

Adding a PIN to this pin is egregious. After I remembered what my code was on the third try, I had to keep shifting my hand back and forth to make the numbers go up or down, and then press my thumb down once I could confirm the number. But the device keeps locking, so as soon as you’re feeling masochistic and want to try using it again, you have to go through the process of moving your hand back and forth the right way repeatedly to unlock it.

Using the pin feels like an episode of “Silicon Valley” written by Kafka.

A photo I took with the Humane AI pin

Once unlocking the device, it just felt like all kinds of randomness. Yes, I tried learning the commands and gestures. But I was walking around Park Avenue and then inside my apartment trying to get it to respond to simple voice commands like telling me the weather, and it refused. I’m not sure why it took photos at some points and not others. I don’t know why it gave me the option once to select a video instead of a photo.

Ever interact with a two-year-old who has a mind of their own and that mind doesn’t want to do anything you want it to? The Humane pin is that toddler clipped to your shirt.

The form is a big part of the problem. Consider other attempts at wearables. Smart glasses will work for some people, in some circumstances. There are advantages. You always have an idea of where glasses are looking, and any lens display is right in front of your eyes. A ‘pin’ magnetically attached to clothing that beams a green light on to your hand is something else entirely. Something way worse.

There’s also the fashion aspect that Google Glass couldn’t get over. Remember Glassholes? If Humane ever gained enough cultural cachet, its wearers would need a name of their own.

I suggest: “Pinheads.”

I kept wondering what people on the street must have been thinking as I frantically tapped the gadget on my chest as if it were a defibrillator.

If it was a defibrillator though, I’d have been in big trouble. During one of my sessions, I took it out of its charging case (I kept thinking the battery must have been the issue, not the UX). Within a minute or two of me trying to use it, it informed me it would have to stop because it was overheating. What? And it did feel very, very hot. Clearly, it’s my fault for making it work too hard.

And still I didn’t yeet it across my living room.

Here’s my best advice for a gadget. Give it to a fourth grader. If she can’t get it to work in 30 seconds, and if in 2 minutes she can’t figure out five of its best features on her own, it doesn’t work.

My daughter couldn’t wait to unbox this one, but I’ve never seen her want to rebox something so quickly.

When I saw that the pin would arrive during our vacation, I was bummed that I wasn’t going to be able to test it out on the trip.

Now that it came, I’m so glad I didn’t have it with me then, turning me into a Pinhead. Trying to figure out the controls of the Humane pin and an Amtrak cabin at the same time would have made me need a whole other vacation to recover.


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