My computer screen flashes to life.
"Oh, hi," says a woman sitting at a desk to my left. I have arrived, it seems, at some sort of office reception area. "Let me get Ankur for you. In the meantime, follow me," she says. I freeze. She walks off camera, then comes back into the frame and beckons for me.
"Come on. Just use the arrows on your keyboard."
"Come on," she says. "Just use the arrows on your keyboard." In my haste to download and install the conferencing software Ankur suggested for our meeting, I had failed to realize that I would be piloting a telepresence robot. I press the up arrow. "Watch out for the table," she says in the most nonchalant of tones. I press the left arrow and start sweating, coming dangerously close to grazing the table’s edge. I feel like I’m taking my driver’s test all over again. I make it to the conference room.
A few minutes later, 25 year-old entrepreneur Ankur Jain walks in, wheels me to the other side of the table, and slumps into a seat with one leg up and his phone-arm stretched out towards me. "Hey man!" he exclaims. I struggle to boot up my Simplenote app, but eventually do, and start typing. "Now that we have these robots, my ability to be a normal human being and make phone calls is gone!" says Jain as he laughs. A moment later he pitches me on Humin, the phone app he’s spent the last year and a half building.
The app replaces the iPhone’s Phone app wholesale, and even manages to intercept missed calls and voicemails, something I’ve never seen before. But that’s not all. Jain tells me that the company’s CTO built databases for Bell Labs, its chief scientist is an MIT professor and an authority on social data sciences, and Richard Branson, Ari Emanuel, and will.i.am have been beta-testing the app. As I peer down from my LCD throne I think that Humin might be the ultimate Silicon Valley fairy tale, a phone app with celebrity connections of its own.
But Humin isn’t just about the phone, Jain says as he looks up towards my glowing head. It began as an app to help manage all the relationships in your life. "1000 apps have tried to solve ‘the contacts problem,’" he says. "People thought the contacts problem was ‘How do we merge your Facebook contacts with LinkedIn, etc?' so all these contacts apps were about getting 3000 contacts in one place." The real problem, Jain says, is searching for contacts the same way you think about them.
Whenever you add a new contact to Humin, the app records your location and the current date. So, searching for "Met last summer in New York" will surface the people you added last summer in New York. An update in the coming weeks will let you add the dates and places for when you met all the people already in your address book. Since Humin checks LinkedIn, searching for someone’s employer also works. The app even does some clever work finding a photo for each of your friends, their work experience, when your next meeting with that person is, and even which friends you have in common.
Humin isn’t always right — in my tests, more than once the app assigned a bizarre photo to a generically named friend (like my friend Chris Williams) — but Jain says the company’s photo-finding algorithm is getting better all the time. And many of Humin’s features do work well, like showing the mutual friends between you and a new contact, and a hidden feature that alerts you when a friend from out of town is visiting your city.
In total, Humin replaces both your Contacts and Phone app, and in my tests does a great job of it. I haven’t felt the need to switch back once to either app. And while I was originally skeptical of allowing Humin to pick up on my missed calls and Voicemails, Jain assures me that his team’s done its due diligence. "We teamed up with carriers to build our own SIP server so we become your voicemail and missed call engine," says Jain. "Emails, calendar events, etc — those never even flow through our servers. They are all processed and stored locally on your device." If hackers even broke into their servers, he says, there would be nothing to steal.
"I can put the robot away for you."
About this time I was starting to feel comfortable in my robot body. Jain’s pitching voice and jovial affect soothed me. I started thinking about writing this article, and telling you to go download the app, because it works shockingly well. But in ten years, I’m not going to remember Humin. These features are going to ship in every phone. We won’t have to worry about adding contacts and keeping them up to date. It will all be automatic.
Instead I’ll remember my first experience as a robot, and my first robo-conference, if you will. Jain’s vision for connecting with people is progressive, and I’m okay with that. He adds me to his Humin app and holds it up to my camera eye. "Ha ha!" he says. "How do you know Sona?"
As our meeting concludes I start to get performance anxiety again. Jain had swiveled me into a real pickle between the table and the wall. "So, should I drive back to reception?" I ask Jain. "Nah," he says. "I can put the robot away for you."