Makers of The Metaverse: James Kaplan Of MeetKai On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Be open to being wrong. If I can say one thing it is that the industry is young and undefined. It is basically a desert. But one with plenty of oil to be found. Sometimes though, if you can’t find any it can be better to stop digging and try somewhere else to build your kingdom. There is a huge amount of foundation to be built and it is not zero sum.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing James Kaplan.
James Kaplan is the Co-Founder and CEO of MeetKai Inc., a VR and Conversational AI company shaping the next-gen of artificial speech intelligence. He founded the startup with Co-Founder and Chairwoman, Weili Dai, after becoming frustrated with the limitations of current automated assistants. Kaplan has had a true passion for AI and coding since he was six and wrote his first bots at only nine years old, including the first Pokemon Go bot and many others still popular to this day. Now his pioneering work in the metaverse puts MeetKai in competition with the largest names in tech. Kaplan studied Computer Science at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA and currently resides in the Los Angeles area.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Of course, it is my pleasure. I have always been interested in software from a rather young age. Around the time I was learning to read, I was rather fortunate that my parents got me a computer for me to play educational games on. I quickly grew more interested in the computer and how it worked than any of the educational games themselves. The Oregon Trail, in particular, is what set me off on a path towards AI and software. My slight obsession with some games, in fact, motivated some of my early entrepreneurial efforts. I wanted to buy in-game currency in a number of MMOs but obviously did not have a credit card of my own to do so. This led to me doing freelance web development to make some side money for buying game items. I never quite told any of the people I was charging that I was not quite a teenager at the time.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
While it might be more expected for me to say something in the sci-fi realm as what inspired or made an impact on me, it is actually something pretty far from that. When I was a teenager, I really loved reading sci-fi books — at the time, Neuromancer was a favorite. However, it didn’t really make an impact on me. Yes, it resonated with me, but so did most Sci-Fi. Instead, the book that probably made the largest impact on me was 100 Years of Solitude. I read that in middle school after hearing about it from family members that are much more literary than me. Aside from it being one of the greatest books ever written, the main thing that impacted me was showing me such an alternative view of the world. Life itself, for better or worse, can be as mystical and dystopian as sci-fi.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I have always been interested and fascinated by XR. I think anyone who has played games or grew up on games always dreamed about the idea of it. I remember when I was in college the news broke that Facebook had just acquired Oculus for $2 billion. This followed earlier purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp by them. I saw it in the blogosphere and recall clearly all the people complaining about this or that but what really stuck with me is the idea that “Oh boy, XR is going to blow up in ways people have no idea about”. That has been a backdrop to motivating me for quite some time. After seeing the power of stand-alone VR and cell phone-attached XR, I really do believe that it is ready for prime time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
I remember early on when I got involved into the XR space I met with a large number of startups doing work to look towards partnerships or joint investment opportunities. Oftentimes these would be extremely early-stage companies at different “demo days”. At one of them we were getting a demo on a function related to being able to “smell” in VR. I remember a person I was with having the headset on as they were trying to get the demo to work (it wasn’t working and the screen was black). The person in the headset all of a sudden exclaimed: “Oh wow! I can smell Indian food, is this a cooking movie that should be playing?”. Little did they know that the catering was being set up and…it was Indian food. This company did not end up ever releasing a product.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the biggest mistake I made was to assume that everyone would want to wear headsets. Many of us grew up in this matrix/VR MMO dream where we all wish we could have fully immersive VR pods that we would go into. However, this is actually more of a bubble. Even more so, I thought that there was no real reason someone wouldn’t want to wear a headset. At a trade show I went to one time I came to understand that I had lacked diversity in thought amongst the people I talked to about this for a very simple reason: I never considered that perhaps many people would not want their hair to be messed with by wearing a headset for a given task… I always try to keep in mind the importance of not only thinking about what I think is cool these days.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am very fortunate to have met my co-founder and mentor Weili Dai. Without her, I would be nowhere near where I am today. While there are many things I could be particularly grateful for and many stories that I could tell of the impacts they have had, the biggest one to me is that I learned to look at the world in a way that merges business and technology without disregarding morals. As an example of this, we were once in a situation where we were being asked by a potential customer to copy a piece of technology that someone else had, improve it, and then they would buy it from us. It would have been very lucrative for us. We turned down the entire engagement and never spoke to that customer again. While there are a number of reasons to decline, the one that stuck out to me the most was that it is a matter of pride. Pride, Weili always says, should lead to how we look and build technology. If we give up our pride in being creators of disruptive technology for even a moment, then we lose the ability to innovate long term.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! The big one I am working on is our new B2C offering, the MeetKai Metaverse application. So far as a company our work has been pretty much confined to B2B engagements. We have pretty large deployments of our tech in a number of verticals and industries globally, however, our consumer products up to this point have been largely tech demos. The company was founded with a simple spec that we have always been working towards: improve efficiency of life through human-AI interaction. Up to this point the best way to accomplish that is to develop IP in the B2B world. However, with the expansion of access to low-cost XR devices (at least the path to them has begun) things can change. We’re building a metaverse product because a lot of real-life experiences people have now are cost prohibitive or simply impractical due to a whole suite of reasons for people. Apps, which did democratize a number of them, are fundamentally limited in what they can do given their constraints of form and function. An XR metaverse on the other hand allows us to deliver not just replacements for many real-world experiences, but also fundamental improvements to them too. But our goal is not to develop something that is purely the virtual — our metaverse is rooted in reality. There is already a real world that is very interesting out there, it is just not being exposed to enough people.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
- Low-cost standalone VR devices — The biggest issue that has stopped innovation in the space up to this point has been that the entry barrier was so high. Even beyond the raw cost of the headset, it often involved building a gaming computer to power the hardware which is not something a random user can do. Thanks to innovation from a number of hardware players we are finally seeing costs come down for stand-alone devices. This will only accelerate with innovations that I see on deck from semiconductor players in the ecosystem.
- Content creation tools — One of the biggest issues for any new and emerging platform is a lack of valuable content. If there is nothing to do then who cares. There are now multiple companies in the industry that are really focused on making it easier to create XR ready content without being an XR expert. Even more interesting are companies that are working to take old content and port it into XR.
- Alternative Monetization — I say this instead of Web3 because when you say Web3 everyone goes into a very specific mindset. What it means to me is that previously, people assumed that monetization options could only exist in an App Store model. There are now many more ways to monetize content. A big advantage to me about Web3 is this idea of more decentralized and direct monetization. Crypto is just one application that solves that problem and need, but not necessarily the only way.
All of the above 3 are required as a “team” to push the industry forward. The fact that they’re so far along is what excites me now. We’re starting to see a path for people to be able to easily create content that they can monetize with an increasing user base thanks to cheaper hardware.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Ironically, the 3 things that excite me the most are also the 3 most concerning to me.
- Hardware is still too expensive. Currently $299 is as cheap as it gets. This is also ignoring the concept of what the actual costs to produce those devices are. For XR to really get huge, either a person needs to be able to not purchase a phone for it or the headsets need to leverage existing computers people already own for the price to get closer to being an accessory rather than a “new thing”.
- Content creation is still too hard. Creating content that actually runs well in VR is a really, really hard problem. In fact, if you look at many of the metaverse products out there many of them say “VR coming soon”. Sadly, I have bad news for anyone holding their breath — if it doesn’t run well in non-VR then it is only an order of magnitude worse in VR.
- Web3 has the potential to prevent adoption. The idea of everyone wanting to have a hardware crypto wallet is laughable. Even software-based wallets are a challenge. The industry cannot afford in such an infant state to create unnecessary barriers to entry. Furthermore, it shouldn’t try to relearn the lessons from the previous monetization efforts that platforms and sectors have tried before. High friction onboard is always a recipe for bad.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
XR has incredible benefits for the entire spectrum of work. As some examples — training right now for jobs is modeled more off of school than anything interesting. Immersive environments where users are able to simulate tasks provide a far more fun, engaging, and impactful experience for learning how to do new work. The benefits towards industrial applications of AR are also self-evident. In a nutshell, wearing an AR device basically gives you superpowers to see through walls and overlay data you would normally refer to your phone for. This is insanely valuable in any building or manufacturing situation. In terms of more white-collar work, what XR enables is the ability to have a far greater sense of presence. We, like many companies, have experimented a lot with functioning in this new remote world the past 2 years. With XR, you’re able to really create a sense of togetherness that is fundamental to so much of the deep collaboration that is usually done in an intimate office environment.
Furthermore, the virtual room in which XR collaboration takes place is capable of not just emulating but drastically improving upon real life work. This is because the entire space is dynamic. It is eye opening the first time you see people bring in data to a virtual meeting in XR. It really makes you feel sad every time you have to be on a video call and look at a screen share.
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
My general rule of thumb is that the XR world can improve our lives whenever one of a small set of criteria is met. I define these in terms of wishes I have when I am doing a task in real life.
- Wouldn’t it be nice if the space I am in now was personalized and dynamic for me instead of fixed for everyone? This is something we all feel when shopping.
- Wouldn’t it be nice if I could try that out without any risk or cost? This is something I think we all feel when considering traveling or doing some new activity.
- Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do this from home without being on my phone? An easy example of this, is that watching live theater is night and day different from a recording of it. XR solves this problem (or at least does a much better job given the cost to go to the theater).
- Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do this with someone who isn’t physically here with me? While yes, watch parties allow you to watch TV with someone, it is not the same as being in the same “space” as them doing so. And for anything physical, even as simple as board games, an app doesn’t cut it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth I would say is that you can only work in it if you have experience in gaming. XR is not just about gaming. Gaming is just the easiest application for many people to understand. Furthermore, the industry is so young right now that what it needs the most is people coming in from diverse backgrounds and interests to help unlock new areas for the industry to expand to. This is why I love talking to startup founders in the space. Otherwise, if you just take a bunch of gaming nerds like myself and expect us to happen upon new verticals you will likely end up with just more games.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?”
- Spend time in XR every day. Otherwise, it is too easy to fall out of touch with where the wind is blowing.
- Don’t get too caught up in any one application. I believe XR is going to be larger than mobile. If you get caught up in one tunnel, then you could very well be in the wrong one. Imagine if you thought mobile phones would only ever be useful for communication.
- Don’t just build what is cool for the sake of building cool stuff. It can be very easy to get caught up in this, compared to other industries, because there are so few end users, relatively speaking. Make sure you are constantly thinking about how what you will do will deliver real value to your users.
- The world isn’t just the US. Make sure you think about the limitations of XR when you take it to a global scale. The value of XR and the metaverse can only come about in a much more connected globalist world. If you think everyone is an English speaker with a $300 headset you are missing the boat.
- Be open to being wrong. If I can say one thing it is that the industry is young and undefined. It is basically a desert. But one with plenty of oil to be found. Sometimes though, if you can’t find any it can be better to stop digging and try somewhere else to build your kingdom. There is a huge amount of foundation to be built and it is not zero sum.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I really do hope that XR and the metaverse will enable people to form relationships virtually that they would never otherwise have done. Honestly, some of my most meaningful friendships as a kid happened online in video games. The ability to enable 2 people on other sides of the world to share an experience together has the potential to cause a lot of downstream good in the world. It breaks down borders in a way that nothing else can.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Honestly, I love talking to people way outside my field the most. What I enjoy most is talking to people who I would never even know about. That is why it is hard for me to say someone in particular with whom to share a private meal with because the most interesting person is one I don’t yet know about :).
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!
Makers of The Metaverse: James Kaplan Of MeetKai On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.