My Bizarre Evening Down the R1 Rabbit Hole

Rabbit CEO Jesse Lyu during his DJ set.

Rabbit’s CEO was 30 minutes late to his session with the media because he had to finish his synth DJ set.

That’s not where this story begins, but it may be the best introduction a reporter can provide. Rabbit’s R1 “pickup party” may not have been a launch event at all but a mere performance. At nearly every turn, Rabbit seemed poised to put on a show devoid of substance.

The event itself was a bit messy — but that’s not unheard of — and Rabbit can be seen as deserving of some leeway as a startup still figuring the details out. But the true nature of this gathering was revealed in the keynote.

The presentation soon dives into the short history of Rabbit: the announcement, the early press coverage, and the victory lap of sold-out pre-order batches. Then it really ramps up.

The presentation throws social media posts from fans which are followed by posts from Rabbit’s skeptics, especially those questioning why this isn’t just an app. It’s the equivalent of an angsty teenager giving the middle to their “haters.” This somewhat immature attitude isn’t unique in the tech world in the slightest, but it comes off as petulant all the same.

Amid the montage is a clip from an interview when Rabbit founder and CEO Jesse Lyu is asked whether he’s threatened by Apple’s push into AI. He gives, at least in the snippet shown, a roundabout answer saying he’s not “delusional” enough to deny his company is a startup and that he knows 99 percent of startups fail. Some tech content creators express their concerns, including Dave Lee of Dave2D. Just after, part of what looks to be an X/Twitter Spaces call is shown where Lee is asked a question and cavalierly responds, “Sorry, I was eating dinner.”

The teenager flips off the haters again.

“Rabbit’s R1 ‘pickup party’ may not have been a launch event at all but a mere performance.”

As noted, Rabbit isn’t the first tech startup to embody frat bro machismo. Meta’s CEO infamously listed his title with the words “I’m CEO… bitch!” on a special set of his business cards in the early days of Facebook (another set more demurely just stated “CEO”). But for a company that seems so desperate to be taken seriously, yelling out at every turn that its product is more than just an app, it’s hard not to give an eye roll.

Curved conveyor belt displaying Rabbit R1 boxes, illuminated by warm lights in a dimly lit environment.

Perhaps the most astonishing part is the overall sales figure Rabbit gives for the R1: the company claims to have sold 100,000 in the first quarter of 2024.

Additionally, a big part of Rabbit’s pitch is that the $199 upfront cost will never come with a subscription and the financial viability of this model has been discussed as often as any other critique of the R1. Rabbit still maintains this will be the case but hasn’t offered any way to assuage those monetary concerns either.

The thing is, Rabbit’s R1 doesn’t seem like a bad product at all. It seems to work quite well based on the live demo shown at the event and according to reviewers who have been hands-on with the device. PetaPixel was unable to obtain a review copy.

Top view of three individuals interacting with a large, glowing neon geometric installation, using a Rabbit R1. Bright pink and blue lights illuminate the area.

So, no, maybe the R1 isn’t a bad product, but it does seem like a pretty useless one. Just about everything it can do is replicable on a smartphone, and not even a flagship high-end one for that matter either. Asking an AI assistant to look up the weather? Zooey Deschanel asked Siri while looking forlornly at the rain outside her window back in 2012. The demo further included a McDonald’s order completed with DoorDash, the ordering of an Uber ride, and recording voice notes. You know what can do all these things? A smartphone!

The crowd filled with Rabbit’s hype squad seemed impressed, but after Rabbit itself played a highlight reel of all the critics and their “Why isn’t this an app?” rallying cries, the company seemed to maybe make that point for them.

Close-up of Rabbit R1 with a side view highlighting the camera, scroll wheel, and button.

There are very few areas, at least from Rabbit’s demo and from reviewers’ first takes, in which the R1 can best the technology already in most people’s hands. During the keynote, Lyu asked who won the 2011 Grand Prix and who designed the winning car. It gave a correct, succinct answer. Try the same with Siri and it’ll pull up the relevant Wikipedia page, which isn’t quite as smooth. Still, anyone with Chat-GPT or a similar model can do the same from their smartphone without the $199 dropped on an additional device.

“So, no, maybe the R1 isn’t a bad product, but it does seem like a pretty useless one.”

In another demo, Lyu scans a hand-drawn spreadsheet and asks the R1 to swap two columns. That was impressive, but the public has also seen Chat-Gpt take hand-drawn notes and turn them into a functioning website. The R1 is in an increasingly competitive space when it comes to AI and large language models with little case as to why anyone should pay for hardware on top of it. Why then, does this product exist?

It was difficult not to let out a little chuckle when CEO Lyu said he heard community calls for an alarm. An alarm? That’s the cutting-edge innovation this startup is bringing?

Two men stand behind a conveyor belt displaying numerous Rabbit R1 boxes.

To be fair, Rabbit did announce more updates and additional features scheduled to arrive in the summer, and some do have promise. For instance, the ability to teach the AI assistant certain actions is worth a second look. However, this feels more like a large language model innovation rather than something intrinsically tied to a physical product, once again raising the “app” question Rabbit seems to hate so much.

The company further touted a new product that seems like a camera worn on the wrist. The example Lyu gave involved pointing to a nest thermostat and asking Rabbit’s device to change the temperature. This is interesting on a surface level — until it dawns on anyone in the crowd that, once again, Siri, Google Voice, Amazon’s Alexa, and the like can all do this already and have been doing this for years.

A Rabbit R1 positioned diagonally on a grey background.

Lyu told reporters at the Q&A that did — eventually — take place that Rabbit isn’t looking to replace anyone’s smartphones, only that it can provide a faster and easier solution to the everyday workings.

But, does it? How much time is anyone truly saving by pointing rather than launching into whatever voice command these existing AI assistants already respond to?

The silliness of it all feels reminiscent of Apple’s launch of Siri. The Deschanel commercial was an awkward marketing misstep, sure, but it also pierced the veil in a way that deflated the novelty. Oh, right, a formerly enraptured public seemed to largely realize, “I can just… open the weather app.” Siri and its friends (enemies?) Google Voice and Alexa are still around, and each tech company keeps updating them. But it doesn’t feel like the magic of 2012 is still behind them when people were more inclined to talk to their phones to complete the simplest of tasks.

Rabbit CEO Jesse Lyu speaks to press at the R1 launch event.

The unce, unce, unce, of the synth beat pounds the head. Pomp. Pomp. Pomp. Show. Show. Show. Flash. Flash. Flash. But when the curtain lifted at Rabbit’s event, what was ultimately revealed? Under the “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd, the forced retro-futurism aesthetics, and — of course — a CEO’s DJ set, Rabbit ultimately revealed that its haters were right after all.

And, frankly, the app equivalent doesn’t seem worth downloading either.

Image credits: Rabbit