Disney-backed Inworld raises new money for its AI-powered virtual characters – TheTechWarrior

If software is eating the world, AI isn’t far behind. AI-powered text, art and audio generating systems will soon find their way into the tools people use every day, from programming environments and spell checking plugins to platforms for creating concept art. The video game industry is no exception, and it hardly comes as a surprise. As exemplified by games like AI Dungeon, AI – though imperfect – can bring surprising creativity and novelty to branching narrative stories.

Inworld AI is based on this premise. The brainchild of Ilya Gelfenbeyn, Michael Ermolenko and Kylan Gibbs, the startup’s AI-powered service generates virtual characters, primarily for games, but also in broader entertainment and marketing campaigns. Using tools and links to engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity, Inworld promises customers that they can create non-playable characters (NPCs) and digital representatives with the appearance of memories, personalities and human behavior.

“Inworld is a creative platform for building virtual characters for immersive realities. It was created to make interactions with characters in virtual worlds and games more engaging and lifelike,” Gelfenbeyn told TheTechWarrior in an email interview. “AI characters in games, metaverse, virtual worlds are usually fully scripted and not engaging. This is what we are addressing by bringing virtual characters to life with AI.”

To demonstrate that there is demand, Inworld today closed a $50 million Series A round led by a wide range of investors including Intel Capital and Section 32 (both of which led the round), Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins , CRV, Microsoft’s M12, Micron Ventures, LG Technology Ventures, SK Telecom Venture Capital and NTT Docomo Ventures. The new money brings the company’s total capital raised to $70 million, which Gelfenbeyn – the CEO of Inworld – said will be spent on product development, research and recruitment.

Image Credits: Inworld AI

Inworld has certainly been busy. Since closing its seed funding round in March, the company released its first product and was selected as one of six companies to participate in the 2022 Disney Accelerator, Disney’s startup incubator. Inworld also made a notable appointment, appointing John Gaeta, perhaps best known for the “bullet time” effect in the Matrix film franchise, as chief creative officer.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to talk to innovators across the Disney business and discuss how AI-powered characters are telling the next generation of stories,” Gelfenbeyn said of the Disney Accelerator. “Inworld has broad applications beyond gaming and metaverse, and can also be used for entertainment, sales and marketing, and training and education… It’s too early to share numbers, but we’re looking for partners who want to build the future of compelling reality.”

Gelfenbeyn drew on a long history in conversational AI when coming up with Inworld, which was officially launched in 2021. (“Conversational AI” refers to AI that allows people to interact with apps as they would with other people, for example via chatbots.) Ermolenko, CEO of API.ai, a natural language startup that once offered voice assistant software for Android, joined Google after acquiring API.ai and its intellectual property. He led product development at Dialogflow, the Google Cloud platform for creating conversational apps, before founding the Google Assistant Investments program, which worked with startups to extend Google Assistant features.

Ermolenko was the VP of R&D at API.ai and then engineering manager at Dialogflow. Gibbs came from Bain, where he was a consultant, and DeepMind, where he led product efforts for conversational and generative AI (thinking systems like OpenAI’s text-generating GPT-3).

Inworld provides a platform for creating AI-powered virtual characters, allowing users to build characters by describing said characters in natural language. To steal an example from my colleague Devin Coldewey, who covered Inworld in April, a description might be: “Asha is a gunsmith and merchant in the town of Rolheim. She is from the far north, where her family is.”

When creating a character’s “brain,” customers use Inworld to modify elements of their behavior and even cognition, such as their goals and motivations, ways of speaking, knowledge, and voice. Editable text fields inform the character about things such as general knowledge, such as the geography of a game world and the character’s tendency towards sadness, politeness and so on.

Inworld AI

Image Credits: Inworld AI

Inworld-generated characters undergo a “training” process before being ready to interact and test, optionally in virtual reality via Inworld’s Oculus companion app. The characters can then be integrated into games and apps via common engine packages or an API.

Characters built with Inworld search the company’s cloud-hosted system for a new dialogue. The price hasn’t been set yet, but presumably it will be a per-search surcharge — a model that may not be feasible for all makers, though Gelfenbeyn says Inworld is looking into ways to reduce service costs.

Tools allow creators to blacklist words and specific topics, enable security filters, and implement dialog fallback in case of connectivity issues. Inworld claims to be one of the first companies to use OpenAI’s Moderation endpoint, a tool that analyzes text to see if it contains anything to be filtered out, including hateful or violent speech, sexual content, and messages that promote self-harm.

How successful these tools are at keeping the characters on topic remains to be seen — chatbots like Meta’s problematic BlenderBot 3.0 don’t instill much confidence in text-generating AI, and Inworld’s platform is in limited beta. But as the company expands its workforce of 42 employees and ramps up customer acquisition, it may not be long before Inworld-powered characters make their way into high-profile games. Then the real stress test begins.

“There is a healthy ecosystem of innovation in virtual characters, from companies focusing on visuals, avatars, hardware, movement and more. Inworld focuses on the characters’ personalities or ghosts, so we’re focused on building a product that’s compatible with all of these systems. We are avatar and platform independent and look forward to working with many of these players,” Gelfenbeyn continued. “Characters have distinctive personalities and we aim to make those personalities more lifelike, engaging and expressive. Our mission is to create and inspire new meaningful relationships and we believe these personality elements will help us do that.”