Chinese Start-Up Rokid Aims To Be "Apple+Google" Of The AI Era

Q: That would be worth over US$1.5 trillion?

A: That’s possible. AI is still in a very early stage and (this evolution) could last for 100 years. The future will be amazing for AI companies, especially AI product companies.

Q: What’s you view on the 2B market segment?

A: When people talk about companies they tend to focus on the business model or technology, but the only thing I care about is culture. The 2B business is more focused on relationship building, marketing and sales. To consumer products, however, is all about the products and picking the right technology to connect the dots to build wonderful products. Their culture and DNA are totally different.

Q: Do you see Rokid entering the 2B market in the future?

A: Not yet. Actually we have some 2B business right now with our open voice development kit. We want to build our own open platform, similar to Google Android today, or maybe more open. Nobody could win the AI war by a single product, so why not open our tech platform to help other companies build their own wonderful products?

Q: After being established in 2014, Rokid revealed its first product, the Alien, in 2016. How much did it cost to build the first prototype of Alien?

A: Roughly around US$4 million. We applied lots of fresh technologies in the design and material and display system and of course, the voice AI. It was a product designed for early adopters.

Q: The Pebble, Rokid’s only mass-market smart speaker product, reportedly sold 50,000 unit last year. If you have to give the Pebble a score between 0 to 100, what would it be?

A: Maybe 10. At Rokid, we are never satisfied, that’s why we invest so much resources into the product and AI technology research. We have two research labs, one in Beijing and the other in Silicon Valley. Pebble is pretty good with good taste, good design, actually I think it’s the best in the world.

Q: Better than Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home?

A: Much better. We are building the next generation of the Pebble right now and making improvements to it.

Q: Pebble is available for sale in China right now, do you have sales plan for overseas?

A: We have plans but it’s not ready yet. The biggest issue is the content and services (for smart speaker products). You have to connect three elements: content, Internet-of-Things ( IoT), and services, to (make it ready) to sell overseas. Maybe next year it will be ready to sell overseas.

Q: Rokid Glass, which was revealed during the CES conference in January, looks a lot like an upgraded version of Google Glass. Is this behind the product design and thinking?

A: One has to mention Google Glass when talking about AR glasses. Google Glass was very amazing in its own time. Honestly the technology was not totally ready back then. Today, the AR technology is almost ready for consumers. Other companies’ products are not glasses, they are more like goggles. When we built our own glasses, we wanted to make it more wearable, more like glasses. It’s just a prototype and not the final design, which will be more gorgeous than the prototype.

Q: One of the biggest reasons of the Google Glass failure is the privacy issue. People feel uneasy around other people wearing Google Glass since they might be taking a video without their knowledge. What measures would you take to help people feel more safe or at ease wearing this product or seeing other people wearing it?

A: This is the other big challenge, how to make your life more comfortable and protect privacy at the same time. I don’t think people will wear AR Glass at all times, only when they want to use it. They won’t put it on when talking or dating, which would be awkward. It’s for occasions like driving or doing interviews like today, so you don’t have to put the camera over there. People will use the tool when they really need it.

Q: What is the timeline for this product?

A: For the launch, it’s not completely ready for the consumers. The basic system is ready but there are details that need polishing. For example, the type of scenarios and type of application we need to deliver to the end user. We might be releasing it to the public in the middle of next year.

Q: Would it be expensive?

A: Affordable, I promise.

Q: Firstly available for sale in China?

A: Actually it’s going to be available internationally. It’s not content driven, it’s just a tool. You can use it everywhere.

Q: What kind of new products should people expect from Rokid?

A: If you are talking about the SKU, we just focus on 2 categories. The voice technology, like Pebble and Alien. We are actually working on the next generation of Alien, and Pebble and then AR Glass.

Q: You want to be patient, to focus on the product quality and plan for the long term. Do you feel pressured seeing how fast the industry is shifting?

A: Not at all. The purpose of Rokid is to build good products for the consumer. We will make money sooner or later.

Q: So you want to manage Rokid for the next 100 years?

A: If I can, of course.

About Misa Zhu:

Misa Zhu is the founder of Chinese artificial intelligence start-up Rokid, a company focused on making high-end AI consumer products. Before founding Rokid in 2014, Zhu was the head of Alibaba’s M Lab between 2010 to 2014. He joined Alibaba after selling a mobile operating system start-up he founded to the Chinese tech giant.