If software is eating the world, AI is not far behind. AI-powered text-, art-, and audio-generation systems will soon be—and are—infiltrating the tools people use every day, from programming environments and spell-checking plugins to concept art creation platforms. The video game industry is no different, and that’s hardly surprising. As demonstrated by games like AI Dungeon, AI – while imperfect – can inject incredible creativity and innovation into a branching narrative approach.
Inworld AI is based on this premise. The brainchild of Ilya Gelfenbein, Michael Ermolenko and Keelan Gibbs, the startup’s AI-powered service generates virtual characters primarily for games, but also in a wider range of entertainment and marketing campaigns. Using tools and integration with engines like Unreal Engine and Unity, Inworld promises customers the ability to create non-player characters (NPCs) and digital representations with memorable, personable and human-like behaviors.
“Inworld is a creative platform for building fictional characters for immersive realities. It was founded to make characters and games in virtual worlds more engaging and life-like, Gelfenbein told TechCrunch in an email interview. “AI characters in games, conversely, virtual worlds are often not fully scripted and engaging. This is what we’re talking about by bringing fictional characters to life with AI.
Showing interest, Inworld today closed a $50 million Series A round led by a variety of investors including Intel Capital and Class 32 (both of which co-led the round), Founders Fund, Kleiner Perkins, CRV, Microsoft M12, Micron Ventures, LG Technology Ventures, SK Telecom Venture Capital and NTT Docomo Ventures. The new money brings the company’s total capital to $70 million, which Gelfenbeyn – Inworld’s CEO – said will be used for product development, research and recruitment.
Inworld was certainly busy. Since closing its seed financing round in March, the company has released its first product and been selected as one of six companies to join the 2022 Disney Accelerator, Disney’s startup incubator. Inworld has made a significant hire, bringing in John Lord, best known for his “Bullet Time” score in the Matrix film franchise, as Chief Creative Officer.
Gelfenbein said of the Disney Accelerator: “It’s an amazing opportunity to talk to creators from across the Disney company and discuss how AI-driven characters are the next generation of storytelling. “Inworld has a wide range of applications outside of gaming and the 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 immersive reality of the future.
Gelfenbein, which officially launched Inworld in 2021, has a long history in technical AI. Ermolenko, CEO of API.ai, a natural language startup that provides voice assistant software for Android, joins Google following the acquisition of API.ai and its intellectual property. He led product development at Dialogflow, Google’s cloud platform for building conversational apps, before co-founding the Google Assistant Investments program, which worked with startups to expand Google Assistant features.
Ermolenko was R&D VP at API.ai and then Engineering Manager at Dialogflow. Gibbs came from Bain and DeepMind, where he was a consultant, to lead product efforts for speech and generative AI (think systems like OpenAI’s text-generating GPT-3).
Inworld provides an AI-powered virtual character creation platform for users to build characters by describing the characters described in natural language. To steal an example from my colleague Devin Coldavi, who reported on Inworld back in April, the description reads: “Asha is a weapons manufacturer and merchant in the city of Rolheim. She comes from the far north where her family is from.
When creating a character’s “brain,” customers use Inworld to customize aspects of their personality and cognition, such as their goals and motivations, speech patterns, intelligence, and voice. Editable text fields inform common knowledge attributes such as the geography of the game world and the character’s inclination towards sadness, politeness, and so on.
Characters created in the world undergo a “training” process before they’re ready to interact and test, optionally via virtual reality Inworld’s Oculus Companion app. The characters can be bundled with games and apps for shared engines or APIs.
Characters built with Inworld Query query the company’s cloud-hosted system for new conversations. Pricing hasn’t been determined yet, but it’s expected to be an inquiry fee — a model that may not be for all creators, though Gelfenbeyn says Inworld is exploring ways to lower service costs.
Tools allow creators to block words and topics and change security filters and implement chat failover in case of communication problems. Inworld claims to be one of the first companies to use a mediation endpoint from OpenAI, a tool that analyzes text to see if it contains anything that can be filtered out, including hate or violent speech, sexual content and messages promoting self-harm. .
It remains to be seen how successful these tools are at keeping characters on topic — chatbots like Meta’s troubled BlenderBot 3.0 don’t inspire much confidence in AI text generation, and Inworld’s platform is a limited beta. But as the company expands its 42-person workforce and ramps up customer acquisitions, it may not be long before Inworld-powered characters make their way into high-profile games. That’s when the actual stress testing begins.
“There’s a healthy innovation ecosystem in virtual characters, from companies that focus on visuals, avatars, hardware, animation and more. Inworld is focused on the character’s personality or mind, so we’re focused on building a product that fits all of these systems. We Avatar – and we’re platform-agnostic, and we look forward to collaborating with many of these players.” Gelfenbein continued.”Characters have unique personalities, and we focus on making those personalities more alive, engaging, and expressive. Our mission is to create and inspire new meaningful relationships and we believe these personality elements will help us achieve that.