Honey, I Shrunk the XR, with MEL Science’s Kai Liang

Chemistry is a tough subject. You could memorize the periodic table left and right, but it can still be hard to actually picture what’s going on at the microscopic level when atoms collide. Director of Business Development for MEL Science, Kai Liang, says that’s the beauty of their VR chemistry kits – it brings the learner down to the atomic scale to see it for themselves.

Alan: Welcome to the XR for Business Podcast with your host, Alan Smithson. Today’s guest is Kai Liang. He is an amazing global world-trotter, travelling around the world promoting virtual and augmented reality for education. He’s a deep expert and practitioner of VR and AR education and industrial solutions in the global marketplace. He’s currently the acting director in a number of different companies, including world-class VR education content company MEL Science as their director of business development, leading VR education company Smart Stone Technologies, and the co-founder and VP of a leading Chinese VR education company, Growlib Technologies. He was recently appointed to the European Managing Director of Shadow Creator, a leading Chinese AR glasses and solution company based in Shanghai. Kai’s various businesses are responsible for successfully deploying VR education classroom solutions to thousands of schools in many countries all over the world. And soon, solutions in several countries directly with the ministries of education. You can visit melscience.com for more information.

Kai, welcome to the show.

Kai: Well, many thanks, Alan. That’s a fantastic intro. Very kind of you.

Alan: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m really excited to have you on the show. How did you get into VR?

Kai: Well, I think it’s really a part of the trend. I used to leave the marketing for glasses-free 3D technology. I was the VP for Dimenco. Glasses-free 3D — or otherwise called auto-stereoscopic 3D technology — has a lot of promise, has a lot of potential, but unfortunately, due to a number of factors, the business didn’t take off. The industry kind of slowly drifted, and a lot of my friends and partners actually moved into virtual reality. And I can’t help but notice that the difference from auto-stereoscopic 3D, VR was a technology and an ecosystem that is joined by a lot of leading global brands such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Huawei, etc. etc. So business is growing stronger and stronger. And I can clearly see that it offer a stronger impact to user, as a media forum than auto-stereoscopic 3D. So yeah, that’s how I just naturally fit in, my credits from 3D to VR. And education is really the area that I initially settled on to. I find that lot of possibility and their missed potentials. I believe this can add a lot of value to what we do.

Alan: Well, I think you guys have already started to add an enormous amount of value to the education system. You sent me a license to your MEL Science VR application. The very first lesson was the difference between pencil lead or — carbon in a pencil lead — and carbon in a diamond. And I was able to — in VR — go in to at the molecular level, and see why carbon as a substrate like lead — or not lead, but graphite — is different fundamentally than how a diamond is. One is organized in sheets and the other one is organized in a structure that is much, much stronger. Obviously, diamonds are much stronger than graphite, but they’re the same materials. And unless I had gone into that VR experience and gone down to the molecular level, I would never, ever really fully understand how that works. This kind of virtual reality experiences to explain phenomenon that are really difficult to grasp from a two-dimensional level. This is really, really powerful. So how did MEL Science start to work on virtual reality education? Because MEL Science started off as a company that provides science kits to students. So you can go online, you order a science kit, and it comes in the mail. And then you can start to do experiments, chemical experiments, you can do physical experiments. How did it kind of morph from that into VR?

Kai: Sure, it’s good question. I would enjoy telling the story. And also, I’m really glad that you enjoyed the experience with MEL Chemistry VR as well. And I think you’ve described reasons to certainly my experience in demonstrating the solution to teachers, to students, to professionals, to colleagues from many countries around the world. So generally people like it, and people like good content. This is very fundamental. I mean, we are all– every day, we enjoy content. And by now when we watch movie, we enjoy the good content. With movies, really a lot of detail, well-constructed storyline. And so good content actually make a big difference for people’s lives, and for education as well. And it’s worth noticing that today, what people see from MEL Science is mostly chemistry. And there’s a good reason for that. The founder of MEL Science is a gentleman called Dr. Vassili Philippov. He’s a friend, and he’s also a physicist and an ex-director of Yandex from Russia, that’s a leading Internet search engine. So Vassili is a great businessman and he’s also a scientist. And Vassili likes to improve the way science is taught and he wants to make things interesting, which is why you notice that MEL Science originally started off designing and manufacturing and provide a really beautiful, interesting, and innovative chemistry experimental kit of very good quality for 22 countries around the world. So in a way, if we go back to our K-12 school days, chemistry is actually the most difficult subject, because mathematics is very reasonable. And physics you can feel and touch. Chemistry, on the other hand — things magically happen on a microscopic level or atomic level, that you just cannot actually see at all. So you have to imagine it. And also, you have to try to take interest from what is happening on a macro level for chemistry experiments when metal changes color, when one state changes to a different state, and one material changes to different material, we make these crystals. You cannot see that and you try to imagine what’s happening on the micro level. So that actually made chemistry really hard to grasp for a lot of people. But yet, it’s such a fundamental subject for everyday life. Our entire biological phenomenon is driven by chemistry. Petrol chemical industry is the backbone of society. Chemistry. And cosmetic? Chemistry. So that is why Vassili and his peers, they really want to do something to improve — to help the society — by improving the way chemistry is taught, so that the difficulty of trying to understand what’s happening in a chemical reaction is not going to be so difficult. So it’s not going to put off so many people. So that is why the experimental kit was designed to make it very interesting — great fun — that is more fun than the experiments you get from standard textbooks. And in addition, virtual reality technology is utilized with really good graphics, with more accurate scientific description, and with a unique journey to actually make the theory easier to absorb, make it immersive. Students can also construct that molecule together using different atoms. So there’s a lot of interaction with it. So I think that, in a way, is what a good virtual reality education program can give you. It’s that unique immersive experience to actually realize, to practice things that is normally impossible on a microscopic level. It can also do things on a macroscopic level, such as playing with concepts on the planets at a solar system scale. But for chemistry, this help, this method is delivered at a microscopic level. And you don’t see a lot of companies from the world actually doing things so focused as MEL Science. And as a name, MEL Science is a suggestion, chemistry is not what we’ll stop, of course. The team has already done a large number of physics content, also on the same level of quality. So there’s a great storyline, beautiful graphics, scientific and accurate, and with the right pace, and with good immersive support, and with a lot of interaction. So all these elements follow through on MEL Science’s philosophy of offering not a lot, but really high quality focused science engaging content.

Alan: It’s interesting that you punctuate the quality, because there’s other companies that are pushing out virtual reality content for learning/education and they have hundreds of modules. But the quality is not quite there, and it’s almost like they rushed through creating as much content as possible. You guys are taking a different approach, where instead of just rushing through as much content as possible, you guys are really focusing on the quality of content.

Kai: Yes, indeed. We– every content MEL Science makes, we want to achieve a really strong wow factor. And normally if you go to trade show, where you try to promote virtual reality education solutions to company. Every company seems to have a list of star content. They would demo the star content in order to push their entire portfolio of VR, the kitchen counter. Now, MEL Science is unique that they really want to make sure that every piece of content have this wow factor. In other words, a consistent high standard. So I think this is very unique. And another thing interesting about MEL Science, I will talk about other VR education company as well. But another interesting thing about MEL Science is it’s a combination of reality and virtual reality. I think that’s also quite important. Already for chemistry, we know that MEL Science makes *real* chemistry experimental kits. That is fun. And you can go to Facebook, our company community page on Facebook. You see more than 1.3 active subscribers on Facebook community page there, because the video was generated and the picture being produced from the chemistry experimental kit, which is beautiful. So the combination of real experimental kits, plus the VR element give you a combined educational and messaging power. And much has recently been made out of the setup for that, called MEL Kit. So this is to teach science to really young children — possibly between five to ten years old — and it’s not constrained to chemistry. It will include physics, mathematics, light, temperature, energy, all these subjects. But this is — again — young children would construct a functional scientific toy, not too difficult. And they will be able to read a storyline from a book. They will be able to construct a bit of a treasure hunt, with a storyline as well. And in addition, they enjoy an augmented reality teaching experience. So again, you’ll see this element of reality. The things you can teach, you can read, you can feel, plus the employment of AR and VR technology. I think that’s actually quite important. You’re having the market two schools of thought. One is to really use the best of VR and AR, but try to leave the traditional education approach. But that’s probably not the best way to go about it. It is important to combine the value of VR and AR, together with well-designed, well-authored education material on paper and physically. And also you can see and touch, and there’s that social element with it as well. So I think that’s actually quite unique, and I hope that is something that can be noticed, can be enjoyed by the user community and teaching community,y so that truly we have VR that is working in partnership with other means of technology, to give that extra bit of user experience.

Alan: Yeah, I think that’s really key in learning. A lot of people when they started to talk about virtual reality is that oh, this is going to replace teachers, and I really don’t feel that. And I think you guys have taken a really pragmatic approach. Virtual reality serves a purpose. It can show students things that were not possible: going down to the molecular level. But you still need that hands-on approach. You still need the experiments, you still need the written word. And I think it’s really not something that’s going to completely replace teaching in the way we know it. It’s just going to enhance it. It’s like when tablets came into a school. Tablets didn’t replace teachers. Computers didn’t replace professors. People need to wrap their heads around the fact that VR and AR are just another tool in the toolbox to provide excellence in learning.

Kai: I agree. And I think that extends beyond teaching as well. Today we see the most high-end utilization of XR technology, including mixed reality, in industries. The common philosophy is that XR technology gives human beings a way of experiencing manipulating and interacting with data. And that really should be an enhancement from what we do and how we do things, rather than replace it. Once we notice that, hopefully we can truly use XR technology in the right way; for training, for education, and for industrial applications and beyond.

Alan: You guys are working on science from experiments and teaching science from that base level. Another virtual reality startup, Labster, is taking a different approach. They are creating a very, very high-end chemistry lab that you can go and start doing experiments virtually. And this is really, really important because they’ve created a lab that you can go in and — like a wet lab — but it’s available to any student. Because most times, these labs are million-dollar labs, and they’re in universities and they’re very, very specific to that, and being able to scale that… do you see Labster as that next step? When you’ve graduated from MEL Science and you’ve got this passion for science and chemistry and physics, then you move over to Labster to really start experimenting at the higher level with that. Is that something that you guys have looked at as a partnership perhaps?

Kai: Yeah, I know the Labster team quite well and they have excellent products. As you already mentioned, Labster’s product and concept focus around college-level or university-level. At the moment, MEL Science focuses on young science education, as well as K-12 level. So in a way, I think these are quite complementary. It’s also difficult for us to work directly with each other, because we address different markets. We have a lot of mutual respect to each other. Labster is great, and also supported by Google. While MEL Science… the market we address is very different. Another thing that’s different about MEL Science is that MEL Science wants to be really platform-independent. We support the Google platform. We support the Oculus ecosystem. We’re working with — this trip, that I have in China — is to talk with other VR platforms in China, including HTC, PPVR, Pico, and we support the iOS platform. We want to be much more universal, so that this is a reflection of education at K-12 and younger levels, because you have a huge variety of different hardware platforms that people use, while — at the university level — they can perhaps be more fixed, and more focused around Google platforms. Hopefully in the future, we can collaborate more.

Alan: Absolutely. I think you guys both have similar missions to provide a new level of science education. I think it’s wonderful. So tell us, what are some of the results that you’re seeing with virtual reality? Are you seeing improved test scores? How are you measuring the success of this, in the school environment?

Kai: That’s a really good question. Especially, we envision the improvement of test scores. You typically see that in eastern countries such as China, Korea, and Japan, it’s very important that whatever education technology you utilize in school, they have the result in a positive effect on the exam scores. And while in the West there has been independent research, both in Russia and the United Kingdom and the USA, to try to measure the difference between utilizing what’s around education technologies such as MEL Science, and the control group that you don’t. In all this different research, there is really strong evidence to support that virtual reality technology give you enhancements for people understanding of the education knowledge point. And notice I’m talking about “knowledge points,” because each VR education application is addressing the delivery of certain knowledge pieces, and all these knowledge pieces actually within the standard K-12 curriculum of different countries. The interesting thing with K-12 is that the education curriculum at K-12 level in all the different cultures in the world, they don’t differ that much from each other. What is useful for one culture — for UK system — would work very well for US system, and will work in China as well, in Japan, etc. etc.. Not only that, the student, after the experience in VR, the youth that uses VR to expand their knowledge, and they get a better feel for it. They get better focus. If you tend to notice that you might have certain naughty students, or there’s a student in the classroom that their patience can easily drift away; once they put on a VR headset — or AR headset, for that matter — this enriched multimedia experience instantly changes their nature. They’re focused on learning for a change. This is a very powerful tool to actually really deliver the kind of baseline knowledge that you want everybody to have in the classroom. So, once people have better confidence with knowledge points, they actually get through the entirety of the education message. I mean, by definition, we know that you should have a positive effect on the exam score. If you truly want to be scientific above exam scores, it’s essential for you to really observe the students who conduct experiments, or start doing research, for a prolonged period of time; at least for one year, or possibly two years. Now, I don’t know of any structured education project as such in the world yet, but of course, we are open to actually work with anybody — for any research institutions — we will facilitate that research, because that can be done. It can be very useful for education communities from around the world.

But having said that, I do want to mention a couple other VR education products, that are written by my friends and partner. For example, there is this company based in Cyprus — loved the island of Cyprus — called Luden.io. And this company, the CEO is called Oleg. Oleg’s team used to develop an education technology game, or edu-tainment games, such as InCell and InMind. I mean, there was a different version of InCell. They also developed a really innovative edu-tainment project such as “while True: learn()”. So it’s artificial intelligence, a machine learning application. Oleg’s team is working with autism institutions in Russia and the US, and I’m putting them in touch with Australian Autism Recovery Centre in Australia, and also in Beijing and the UK. So, by working together with the research institutions to help children suffering from autism — to learn better, to socialize better — they purposely develop the application together as research. This type of product — their product set is called Rewire.Education. They are actually a combined result of scientific research together with virtual reality education. So their product, I think, is certain to deliver positive value in education for autistic children. I mean, it’s different; it’s a very niche market sector. But I think that’s actually a good example; hopefully we can begin to see more and more collaboration between the good VR content teams and top research institutions. They would focus on how to utilize the XR technology to improve education. But, in that way, without waiting for one or two years for research, we know that we’re going to deliver things that deliver a better result, because we involve research and we know teachers, and we know students, from day one. So I hope initiatives like this can happen more and more in the world.

Alan: I agree. I think it’s it’s wonderful. It’s interesting, the position that you have, because you represent a number of different technologies all within the K-12 education space — Luden.io, Smart Stone VR, and then MEL Science — but they all work together to enhance learning. How did you get into the field of learning? How did you end up here representing all of these different future education components?

Kai: Good question. As I said, I started in the world of VR by working in the area of virtual reality education. And I remember my first job in this area was that I became the sales director for — at the time, back in the days of 2016 and 2017 — the leading Chinese Virtual Reality Education company called VR School. I was a sales director, so my job is to deliver positive revenue for the company in a very competitive market space against all the kind of a traditional resistance of the technology, and also against the fact at that time, the experience of VR is not all that great. So I have to push. But very quickly, I noticed that the good companies really deliver the message and deliver the benefits. It’s obvious, but there are not so many good companies back in 2016 and 2017, certainly in the market in China, and also internationally. You have all this content isolation. One company will have certain content — and don’t forget, writing virtual reality content at that time is a lot more expensive compared with these days. You have much less professionals who are able to generate VR content, including VR education content. So you have one company, and perhaps you have five to 10 pieces content. Another company, perhaps has 20 pieces of content. When you put them all together, it’s still not going to come anywhere near enough for VR education to be adopted or even trialed in the education community. So from 2017, while I was working for VR School, I already formed the habit of trying to get known people and companies around the world who actually are working on VR conferences. Normally I would ask people, “do you also do something in the education? Why not?” And I think that therefore, we’ve done this consistently for three years ago. It gave me the benefit that I start to actually get to know a lot of good people from different worlds, from different countries with different styles. They all have different content from me. And MEL Science is actually one of the companies I came across in this search, being probably one of the best. And together with Labster, as you rightly pointed out, and Luden.io, and CoSpaces, and VictoryXR, Sterling Pixels. I can then weave our long list of really, really good people, good teams who actually created good VR education content, and by working with these people, you also can see all the reasons why they can create good content.

Sometimes I even try my best to offer help. For example, my Australian startup Smart Stone is now working with Luden.io, because even though their application as a product is great, it’s probably going to be too difficult for some students. And so we needed an easier version, so that the message of the experience can be enjoyed by a wider group of people. And we do that because we know the Minister of Education in China very well. While you have a country with a massive amount of buying power, and also really active needs for a good artificial intelligence education product, we’re able to marry the need better with the team producing the content. So I think it’s really the job experience kind of took me to this direction. And also it’s really a factor of enjoyment, of working with teams who are passionate about creating good content. They are normally people with a unique philosophy, with their own thinking, with their own style and their own experience. And they all have a passion to try to improve the way training and education is done. It is great fun — including yourself, Alan. You are also very active, to introduce people to each other. So I think in the world of whenever you have new technologies such as XR, it’s really good to have this community of positive people to try to spread and promote the value, the good of it, to each other, to a different market. So hopefully we can work together to drive the positive energy given by new technologies to help them to actually deliver value in a society.

Alan: It’s amazing. The whole reason they started this podcast was exactly that. I saw amazing business use cases, and amazing education use cases. I saw them coming up every day. And I also was meeting with customers who had absolutely no idea about VR. And so you have this disparity where the XR community is working really hard to create valuable products, but the rest of the world doesn’t know about them. And if the rest of the world does know about them, it’s very hard to get scale. And so I started the podcast to educate people, and it’s thanks to guests like yourself that come on and really explain why this is important and how people can get involved. So speaking of which, how can people get the MEL Science VR experiences on their headsets right now?

Kai: So we are making a trial very much easier this day. So we have a very flexible way. First of all, because we support the VR experience off all kinds of platforms, from the Google Expedition platform, to Oculus, to other all-in-one devices, so our team in London will be very pleased to offer a trial code to anybody who needs it. And we do also attend — and our partners attend — pretty much all the meetings and the tech shows from around the world as well. And so you can meet us in basically all the major tech trade shows from around the world.

Alan: I know you’re also on the Oculus store.

Kai: Yes, we are.

Alan: And are you on steam as well?

Kai: We’re not currently on Steam yet, but we should. I mean, it’s good. Otherwise, I’ll certainly talk to the team to see if we can get us out. Until recently, we also signed with zSpace, which is also a fantastically successful VR education platform. So we just got on this thing. We’re designing and delivering our entire content platform just to zSpace. So the supporting platform is going to expand. We’re on iPad, so we’re not just on VR. We’re also on tablet as well. We might work to actually work out support for Chromebook. It’s a project being discussed internally. We have to do two things. One is to deliver more content, and the other is to support wider and wider platforms. In the meantime, we’re open to actually work with all the platform partners from around the world. So hopefully, we can join to develop content as well. We’re going to be more flexible, especially with the latest round of funding.

Alan: I love it. I don’t know what else to ask, my friend. And I think this has been a great conversation; a great conversation-starter. And for anybody who’s looking for more information about MEL Science, you can visit MEL Science dot com. How can people get in touch with you?

Kai: I can be reached by my LinkedIn page or email kai@[unclear], as well as kai@smartstoneVR.com. And also, by talking to my friend, Alan!

Alan: Yes. Yes, you can message.

Kai: Everybody would know everybody through you.

Alan: Yeah. I am a connector of sorts. Awesome. Well, Kai

Kai: You’re wonderful.

Alan: I really want to say thank you for taking the time to be on this podcast. And I really look forward to trying more of the MEL Science and getting my kids really excited about science, because I think what you guys are on to is inspiring, and it educates, and it checks all the boxes that I feel are necessary as we move into a really fast-paced world of exponential growth. So thank you, Kai.

Kai: Thank you very much. And thanks for this podcast as well. Great idea. It’s certain to benefit all of us working in the XR industry.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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