As I’ve teased you in my previous blog post, in Shanghai I had the opportunity to speak with some interesting VR startups that are part of the Vive-X. This has been possible thanks to the kind support of Mister President and the whole HTC, that introduced me to these companies and let me visit them to discover a lot of things about the Chinese VR ecosystem. I really wish to thank them for this opportunity they gave me.
The first startup that I’ve met is called Langzou and it operates in the education sector. It was the first time I was going directly into a Chinese company to make an interview and I was quite worried about it, but I have to say that the guy that has received me, Dabo Chen, that is the CEO of the company, really let me feel comfortable. He is a smart guy and speaks English very well, so the interview went smoothly.
After I introduced myself, explaining to him who the hell is the “Skarredghost” (it’s strange that I’m not super-famous as a rockstar in China :D), he started telling me his startup journey. I’m going to report the full story because I think that is very interesting to make you understand better the VR educational ecosystem here in China.
He is a designer, not a techie, and during his master he got interested in computer vision, especially in 3D reconstruction of people and places. He started envisioning about the possibility to record an event (like a sport event or an artistic performance) from multiple angles and then stream the 3D reconstruction of the whole event in realtime, so that people could enjoy it in virtual reality as if they were really there, among the main characters of the event itself. I think that this is the dream of every one of us regarding the future of television.
Of course, we’re talking about a massive project, so during the master he was able only to do a little prototype. But after the master, he wanted to continue pursuing this dream, so he started looking for support for this futuristic project. Since his final vision was to let people use VR to enjoy the 3D reconstruction, he applied for the Vive-X incubator and there people told him that the project was really too massive and was actually something that needed multiple companies and a lot of time to be accomplished, so he had better create a more feasible product satisfying the needs of a little niche now and then keep the long-term vision for the far future. So, being moved by his desire to help people, he decided he wanted to use his technology to give his country a better education.
VR is something that isolates us from all the people around us, and that’s bad for children in schools, so Dabo’s idea was to use the 3D reconstruction technology to let children see the actual body of the teacher inside virtual reality so that VR feels less isolating. So he started creating a product where the teacher has a podium in front of her comprised of a computer and a TOF depth camera (that is, a Kinect), all packaged in an elegant case. The teacher can make his/her lesson in front of this camera and his/her body gets immediately 3D reconstructed (using Kinect’s point cloud) and shown to the students enjoying the lessons in VR. This way the students and the teachers are like teleported in another place, with the students still able to see the teacher as in real life. If the school is rich enough, it can buy a VR headset for every alumn, so that all of them can follow the lesson in VR together. If it is not, the system can only work with only one studentenjoying the lesson in VR and the other ones following what is happening on a big screen in front of them.
He said that in China if you want to sell something to schools to help them in offering VR education, you have to sell them a complete package and not only a part of the solution. That’s why Langzou offers not only the hardware and the 3D reconstruction technology, but also an editor that lets the teachers prepare the VR lesson in an easy way. Teachers in China currently use Powerpoint to prepare lessons, so he created an editor that is very similar to Powerpoint, so the transition from 2D to VR is easier for its users. In this editor, the teacher can create various slides (that are like various scenes, various settings of the lesson) and then in every slide the teacher can:
- add a 360 photo background (that can also be taken easily from Baidu Maps and Google Maps);
- add text-cards, images and 3D models that serve as materials to actually explain stuff to the students in that environment.
I’ve tried the editor and I loved it: the design is very smooth and it is super-easy to be used. Super-approved.
The process of preparing the lesson can be collaborative, too: the students and the teacher can prepare the slides together, so that to make the learning even more interactive. Remember that the more a lesson is interactive, the more the concepts get learned and remembered by the students, so this is another smart choice by Dabo’s company.
After the lesson has been prepared in the editor, it is ready to be showcased in the classroom. The teacher appears with its real 3D reconstruction inside the virtual world composed of a 360 photo and using the 3D models and the cards introduced in the lesson, he/she is able to perform an interactive lesson in VR. Students can be taken for instance to New York and be able to play with the 3D models of the Brooklin bridge, the Statue of Liberty and so on, so that to learn better the history of this city with an interactive lesson.
I haven’t been able to try this new way of teaching due to logistic reasons, but from the videos the concept seems interesting. The problem is that the 3D reconstruction, being performed with a single Kinect, is currently very rough… I still wonder if at the moment a 3D avatar of the teacher would still be better than this reconstruction. The other problem is what kind of lessons can be done this way: for instance for geography, this software can be great, because can teleport the students everywhere, while for chemistry it is far less interesting, since it can’t work as a lab, allowing all the chemical interactions among elements. Furthermore, IMHO the solution with only one student using VR and the others watching on the screen is a compromise that is not as valuable as the solution where all students use VR.
Langzou VR started offering this solution to International schools in China, getting really good results: students and teachers loved it… so much that teachers continuously asked for new features for the software.
But International schools are a little niche, so they wanted to also enter the public schools segment. In China, currently, the government has set some policies according to which universities and high schools must use VR and gives them money to buy the VR equipment. So it is a great moment to grow for VR educational startups like Langzou. BUT, this solution that appealed so much to international schools was not appreciated that much by public schools. Schools bought VR from HTC, even bought Langzou software thanks to HTC suggestion, but then left headsets taking dust inside some closets… waiting for some government officer coming to verify that school was using VR to be taken off the shelf to pretend for a day that the school actually used VR. This made Dabo quite sad because even if his company was earning some money, his software was not used… he created this startup to help people, to make people learn better and this was not happening.
If you in this moment are completely confused, don’t worry, I was too. But Dabo explained me everything and so I’m going to explain this to you. In China, at the end of high school, there is a final exam. We have this even in Italy and I guess that there is one in all parts of the world. But in China, this final exam is like a Sliding Doors moment that can decide if you are going to succeed or fail in your working life. If you take a very high grade, you can go to some prestigious University like Tsinghua, while if your final score is too low, probably you won’t be able to find a university wanting you at all. This means that you can’t do anything but taking a high score in this final test. And to take a high score, you must memorize bazillions of information. Teachers always say students that if they learn how to do something, maybe the day of the final test they will do that wrong and the score will be lower, while if they learn everything by heart, they can’t be wrong, because they have just memorized the right answer and written it. It may wrong or right, but this is what currently happens in China: students memorize everything. Exaggerating a bit the concept, so to make it clear: they don’t give a f*ck about understanding things and playing with 3D interactive models, they just want to memorize everything so that they can pass the final exam that can decide their life. So, whatever application that doesn’t help in that, is not useful.
That’s why Dabo has decided to pivot and starting experimenting with XR memory palaces. If you don’t know what a memory palace is, well, basically it is a mnemonic trick to help you remember things better. You have to imagine a tour of a place you know well (e.g. your home) and associate the words you want to remember with some of the objects of this place. For instance, if I want to remember “Beijing is in China”, I could associate a photo of Beijing with the door of my house and Donald Trump that says “China China China” with the shelf where I put the keys on as soon as I enter my house. Making the journey of me entering the door with the photo of Beijing on and then leaving the keys where there is Donald Trump that says China, I will remember better the concepts Beijing and China and I could reconstruct the original sentence I had to remember. Studies say that memorizing with memory palaces is 25% more effective than memorizing without them. So this is something than can be really useful for high school Chinese students.
As you can imagine, memory palaces are ideal to be implemented in AR and VR. That’s why Dabo and a partner of his that graduated in psychology at Harvard, started experimenting with them. They started with VR memory palaces, where you reconstruct a familiar place in VR and then associate images with some well-known objects. They made some trials and discovered that the more the simulation is real, the more the memory palace is effective. So, 6 DOF VR is better than 3 DOF VR, VR is better than flat screens and so on. He summarized the concept with “the more you spend for a device, the more the associated memory palace is effective”. And this is in line with what the University of Maryland has discovered, that is that VR memory palaces are 8.8% more effective than 2D ones.
But here comes another unexpected twist of Dabo’s story: while the memory palace was more effective in VR, Chinese users actually reported to prefer using mobile phones or PCs with 2D screens, saying that they found the interface more familiar, that to them it seemed that they were playing, like when they play games every day. VR has been reported as more tiresome. This part of the story taught me once more how tests on actual users are fundamental: we shouldn’t just rely on what we think is right, we have to discover what the users feel right.
So, now Dabo is trying to target customers with a WeChat app. Users can open the app on mobile, paste the paragraph that they want to learn by heart, and the system will automatically transform it into images ready to be inserted into your mental memory palace. There is an AR functionality that lets you shoot photos of the things to remember directly super-imposed with the real objects they have to be associated to: in the example above, this means that the app lets me shoot a photo of my door with a picture of China on. This aumgmented reality is currently only a superimposition, since WeChat still doesn’t offer ARKit-like AR to its developers, but this feature will come soon and Langzou will implement it for sure. I’ve tried this mini app andI can say that it has a neat interface and it is very easy to be used even by people that have never created a memory palace before. The automatic conversion from a text paragraph to images is the feature that I think that makes it really handy and easy to be used.
So, now Langzou mainly offers a solution for VR learning in international schools in China and will soon release an AR app for learning things easily by memory. I wanted to report its whole story because IMHO it has very interesting twists and both of them regards the fact that the customers had requirements that are the opposite of what we thought they should be. And this can also show you how things here in the East are completely different: in Italy, for instance, schools do not encourage learning things by memory at all. And the government doesn’t push VR in education: a company like Langzou can exist only in China, where the government is forcing schools to adopt virtual reality, while in many other countries, schools would just stick to the traditional teaching methods.
I explicitly asked Dabo about the differences between China and the rest of the world, especially for what concerns his environment. He said that the Chinese VR ecosystem is more practical: while some American companies can start working now with a vision that will be fulfilled in 5 years, a Chinese company has to make money NOW. So, no pumped evaluations of startups, no phantasmagoric futuristic visions: a company has to be practical and survive on its own since the beginning. Then there are the big investments of the government for what concerns AR and VR: schools MUST have VR devices and must use VR for education. This opens a lot of opportunities for educational VR startups here. I’ve asked how is the competition in the educational sector and he told me that there is, but the battle is less on the product and more on the network side. Since schools must adopt VR, as soon as they receive this policy notification by the government, they look for some companies that can help them in implementing VR and do this by looking in their network. If a company has lots of connections with Chinese schools, it will be easy for it selling its products. So, networking here is fundamental.
And in this Langzou is being helped a lot by HTC Vive-X. Dabo told me he’s happy about being inside this accelerator because he has found inside a lot of great people that are shaping a good VR ecosystem. And then Vive-X is introducing him to customers and this is fundamental for a startup.
Talking about China, he also added that a lot of Western people come here for the big market, for the big money, but this is a wrong approach, especially because they don’t take the time to understand that people here are completely different. The technology is the same, but the psychology is different. So, if you want to enter this market, take your time to understand how things work here… and you had better have a Chinese partner.
And we have to understand how to properly design the VR interface of education. And to do this, we need more designers in the industry, more people that actively work to make VR more usable on the hardware and the software side. As a designer, he knows that when developing whatever objects to be sold on the market, one of the things that companies care most is ergonomics: we should do the same in VR, too. He says that in his opinion VR is not becoming widespread because the advantages of using it are not superior to the discomfort of using a VR headset. VR is only taking the stage in environments when these advantages are evident, like for instance in objects prototyping, where VR can make companies spare a lot of time and money. He closes with a consideration: “We all praise and love room-scale, but think about it… we actually spend most of our life seated… why should we be standing and moving in VR? Staying seated is more comfortable”. Mind=blown.
This closed my interview with Dabo, that I thank once more for the time he has spent with me. I learned a lot talking with him and I think that he’s a smart guy that sooner or later will succeed in life.
I’m writing about these Chinese startups also to foster some collaborations between XR companies in China and companies and people in the Western world (I’m trying to be the Marco Polo of XR :D), so if you want to talk with Langzou about possible collaborations or exchange opinions on XR education, you can visit its website and then contact Dabo and the team via e-mail. Or you can just ask me for an introduction, I would be happy to help.