Who is Jesse Lyu?

The Rabbit R1, its founder, and is the gadget really built on a scam?

Almost a month ago, from the iconic TWA Hotel at JFK Airport, Jesse Lyu launched the Rabbit R1 to a crowd of early adopters and press. Since then, it’s gotten all kinds of publicity — from reviewers calling it “half-baked” and “a beautiful mess” to the various controversies and ‘gotcha moments’ that have trickled in.

Only yesterday, YouTuber Coffeezilla accused Rabbit of appropriating funding from his NFT project, GAMA, to funnel into Rabbit. (Lyu responded that all funding was spent on the NFT and the project “was open-sourced and given back to the community” rather than abandoned.) And before that, the R1 was being called “just an app”.

We’ll get to the controversy later. But there’s something missing from all this coverage: the founder. Here’s 10 things to know about Jesse Lyu and his path to the R1.

1/ His love of tech and gadgets is legit

Jesse’s love of gadgets started with video games. Growing up in rural China, he begged his parents to let him spend a week with his uncle, just so he could visit the local arcade. After that, he saved up his own money for a Game Boy (the original one, with the monochrome display) and fell in love. 90s gadgets continue to inspire his design taste and love of creative hardware.

He’s even a semi-pro Warcraft 3 gamer, ranking 8th at the World Cyber Games in 2010.

2/ He’s always been super dedicated 

Growing up, there were no coding classes for kids, so he begged his sister to sign up for an adult C class so he could tag along. He started building Flash games, which turned into making apps in college in the UK. He fell in love with startup culture while building with his friends.

Jesse launches his first company, Raven, with some friends // YC Demo Day, 2015

3/ YC W2015

Jesse applied to Y Combinator with his original AI startup, Raven, and moved to California with a couple of friends. They were the first Chinese team to be admitted. They planned to build a voice-based OS.

Also in 2015, Jesse was included in Forbes China’s 30 under 30, and again the next year in Forbes Asia.

4/ Raven made Alexa before Amazon

“We were one of the first companies really focused on conversational AI, before LLMs.”

He would have put it in a smart speaker before Amazon’s Echo, but his investors talked him out of it, saying hardware was too complicated. Jesse and his team made a music app instead, Flow.

5/ “Search was dying”

In 2016, Jesse partnered with Baidu, China’s Google, to pivot to AI. Together they built the AI-powered Raven H speaker and Raven R robot (or “emotional 6-axis life form”).

Jesse also worked with Teenage Engineering for the first time, who’ve now designed the R1. (He actually got in touch with them through cold email!)

The Raven H speaker (left) and Raven R robot (right).

6/ A fateful call with Sam Altman

Sam showed Jesse an early version of GPT3. Jesse was impressed, but said it didn’t go “far enough”. He wanted to make AI that could understand how and why a person engages with a modern computer interface.

So he began training Rabbit’s ‘Large Action Model’, a neural-symbolic AI, on videos of people using modern UIs. The training took 3 years.

7/ Why “Rabbit”?

There’s no “deep meaning” behind the name “Rabbit”, but Jesse did have some inspirations, including the Disney movie Zootopia and the white rabbit in The Matrix. The vowels in rabbit also spell ‘AI’.

Mostly, though, he just wanted something that people could visualize, rather than a ‘typical tech’ name.

8/ “A Tamagotchi-Pokédex-walkie-talkie”

That’s how Jesse saw the R1. He gave a Tamagotchi to the team and said “AI is scary, but let’s make it fun and cute.”

To get the shape, he cut an iPhone in half and added the basics — the screen, camera and SIM card — plus “fidgeting analog stuff to play around with”.

He claims it “took us 10 minutes”.

Iterations of the R1 design, from the R1 launch party.

9/ Launch party

Rabbit held a “pick-up party” for early adopters last month in the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport. It had a suggested dress code of retro-futurism, R1-themed cocktails and a conveyor belt for guests to pick up their devices.

Jesse also gave a live demo and talked about his plans for Rabbit.

10/ What’s next?

Rabbit is currently only 45 people. Jesse says they’re scaling, but “not too fast”.

He also has lots of plans for Rabbit; he says he knows “exactly what to improve”. The R1 will be seeing plenty of updates; it’s an evolving product in its early stages. On launch day, Jesse said “I’ll be very happy if the R1 gets a 6/10 review”.

Is Rabbit really “built on a scam”?

The internet has had a lot to say about Rabbit, and many of the loudest voices are calling it a scam. “I can't believe this bunny took my money,” one review starts, while another claims “something's iffy about [the R1]”. But while most reviewers feel let down, or perhaps misled, about the capabilities of the Rabbit R1, others have made stronger accusations.

“Just an app”?

The first controversy started with an Android Authority post. The author, Mishaal Rahman, had managed to download the Rabbit launcher APK on a Google Pixel phone and, with some tweaking, got the app running as if it were on the R1 hardware. Flutterflow’s Will Hobick also got an emulator to run on iOS.

Jesse has disputed this. “rabbit r1 is not an Android App,” he said in a recent statement. But it doesn’t negate the fact that the Rabbit ‘operating system’ is an APK file that can be downloaded straight to an old Android phone.

The Rabbit R1 emulator.

“Built on a scam”?

Just yesterday, YouTube investigator Stephen Findeisen (‘Coffeezilla’) made some bold claims about the company behind the R1, Rabbit Incorporation. He claims Jesse took funding from his last project, GAMA, to jump-start Rabbit — and that up to $1 million is owed in refunds.

Here’s the background: Jesse worked on GAMA, a space-themed video game that also released NFTs (which Jesse “bought a bunch” of) and plans for a carbon-negative cryptocurrency, GAMA Coin, that was never released. He left the project once the game was open-sourced.

But was any funding intended for GAMA put into Rabbit? Jesse says no; Coffeezilla says yes. For now, it’s unclear exactly how the $6 million in VC funding was spent. But one thing’s for sure — for one reason or another, no one’s happy with the Rabbit R1.

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