Ep. 120 The MongoDB World Series - Simcha Coleman From Inspirit
Shane McAllister: So, welcome back again to the MongoDB podcast. We do appreciate you listening. We are very glad to have you back. My name is Shane McAllister, I'm the developer advocacy team here at MongoDB. And once again, I'm not alone. I'm joined by Cedric, who's one of our 120 interns or so here at MongoDB. How are you Cedric?
Cedric Clyburn: Hey Shane. I'm doing fantastic. How are you?
Shane McAllister: Good, good, good. So you're past the halfway point in your internship of MongoDB. How is it all going?
Cedric Clyburn: It's hard for me to believe that we're already past this halfway point, because now it's mid- July and it's gone by really fast. There's been a lot of learning so I've really enjoyed that. My developer hub articles are finally in the final review stage before they get published online. And it's actually pretty busy around the office. So we're in the middle of Skunkworks, which is MongoDB's version of a hackathon, but more relaxed and takes about a week. So have you been able to participate in Skunkworks before?
Shane McAllister: Before, yes, I'm not doing this one, unfortunately. But I have done them before and it's a superb opportunity to take a break from the normal day to days and kill all those meetings that recur every week and take some time out to collaborate and work across departments and with people you wouldn't usually work with. So I had a superb time in the previous ones I did and learnt a lot and it's invaluable really. You think it's a week out of your work, but in fact, I suppose the network and the collaboration that you have and the things that you learn outside of your normal day to days are more than worth it. So I'm delighted you're participating. What are you doing for Skunkwork though Cedric?
Cedric Clyburn: So you wouldn't believe it, but I'm actually working on something related to the podcast.
Shane McAllister: Something related to the podcast, who'd have thought, who'd have thought. Well, I think you got to stay with your domain knowledge so I very much look forward to see what you come out and build within the Skunkwork suite.
Cedric Clyburn: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we've also got, as we've been doing, a recording from the show floor at MongoDB World. So we'll go ahead and play that. Let you guys listen to another one of the attendees talking about what he enjoyed at World.
Speaker 3: I'm here with...
Speaker 7: Harra from inaudible.
Speaker 3: And we're wondering, what are you most excited for at the MongoDB World Conference in 2022?
Speaker 7: Well, we're excited about the version six announcements, mainly regarding the column store, indexes, and stuff related to time series. I think that would be a great improvement, great features that we could use in inaudible. And we're also excited about the new performance in all sorts of areas and in general about the new features.
Shane McAllister: Okay. So today's episode is another episode in our podcast that we recorded at MongoDB World back in June. This time, it's an interesting interview with Simcha Coleman who's the head of engineering from Inspirit. Inspirit create virtual worlds for learning and education. And I know myself, as a parent of three children who live their lives digitally, it's super frustrating to see this not applied to their learning. They spend forever in the digital universe and the digital world be it games and apps, et cetera, as well too. Well, here in Ireland where I live, it's still very much textbooks for all of your learning. So to me, 3D learning environments are probably very natural to the digital natives as my children are. And using interactive, immersive learning can bring even the most mundane topics to life. So this episode, super interesting, so I think you tune in and let's hear from Mike Lynn once again and Simcha from the show floor at MongoDB world and what they had to discuss.
Simcha Coleman: I am Simcha Coleman and I'm the head of engineering for Inspirit. We are building the metaverse for education.
Mike Lynn: Fantastic. Well, welcome to the show and welcome to the conference. So I want to start by asking you, before we get into Inspirit, I want to ask you about what you're excited about today at the conference?
Simcha Coleman: What I'm excited about today? I am excited to be in the presence of industry leaders, people who are at the forefront of the boom and technology that we see today, specifically regarding the way we handle data, and just being able to hear and learn from that vast array of knowledge that they come with.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. And it's great to be in person, right?
Simcha Coleman: Yeah. Right.
Mike Lynn: Yeah.
Simcha Coleman: I remember, was it last year, two years ago? I participated in MongoDB World virtually.
Mike Lynn: Okay.
Simcha Coleman: So it's my first time in person and it's quite an experience
Mike Lynn: Truly is. I mean, obviously the in person, you get so many more data points, if I relate it to technology. Okay. So I want to learn about Inspirit and I want the listeners to understand exactly what Inspirit is all about. Tell us about the business.
Simcha Coleman: Sure. So historically, we've had different forms of teaching material. Typically, that's been confined, let's say within the classroom. Typically, that's been in the form of a textbook, or a teacher lecturing besides that with the textbook using Google slides, using all these other various forms of teaching material. So with Inspirit, we're trying to take it to the next level. We recognize that learning outcomes through 2D material, which would be like your textbook, is not necessarily as effective as say 3D. So we're basically taking education to the next level, creating this metaverse where teachers will be able to create worlds where they can teach using the variety of 3D material that we're providing to them and that they will also create in the future. And this way they can engage the student and basically facilitate those learning outcomes that they so desire. Students love it. They love learning in a 3D world, in a world that's very similar to the gaming world. Something that they're used to. And it's also very different. When you look at a process in a textbook, you have to follow the entire path and there's just so much going on. It's so distracting. There's a lot of different things, but you're not actually there. Take like a eukaryotic cell. Understanding what it looks like, looking at it under a microscope. All right, that's cool. But being able to go inside of that cell and actually seeing the process in action, such as how the different types of elongation and different types of processes that are going on in the cell. It's being able to be there while it happens is something that you can't do unless you're the magic school bus. I don't know if you remember the cartoons-
Mike Lynn: I do.
Simcha Coleman: Where you fly into the process of the microscopic processes. So that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to bring that excitement. Bring that passion back to education, in a way where students are familiar with, in a way that also helps teachers build those curriculums and build those tools to facilitate that learning.
Mike Lynn: Fantastic. It's an exciting space. And I can imagine, just with the additional level of detail you can accomplish, I mean, a picture's worth a thousand words and you're literally immersing students in, I would say a thousand pictures per second.
Simcha Coleman: Yeah.
Mike Lynn: I mean, if you're truly immersed in a 3D.
Simcha Coleman: And it's not just a picture. I mean, it's something that you can interact with. Something that you can actually be part of the process. And that's something that looking at a picture, you have to use your imagination as if you're there, but now you're actually there.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. I want to ask about the data and the technology, because we've got developers listening and they're probably thinking about how this relates to MongoDB. But before I go there, I want to ask now you mentioned biology and I would imagine that's a perfect, perfect subject matter. Do you think that your technology is specifically suited, well suited, for that topic versus others?
Simcha Coleman: So I think that there's really no limit to how interactive one can... Even the most mundane topics. I mean, math is not mundane, but it can feel that way to students who are maybe not as into it as others. But there's ways that one can get creative and figure out how to turn those numbers on a paper into something interactive. Something where you feel it and you're in it and you're doing it versus just using a paper, a scratch pad and just writing all those notes out. So I think that you're right, that for STEM education, that's probably a perfect candidate for this platform. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other applications and other ways that you can get creative and really transform the way that some of these other topics are traditionally taught.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. So when I immerse myself in a game, when I'm using goggles, it is overwhelming sometimes the amount of data that's pouring into my senses. Do you feel like it might be distracting to some personality types to be trying to learn in that environment?
Simcha Coleman: It may be. It's always something that when it comes to the virtual reality realm, that's something that we need to consider. It's important to build out a product that could facilitate that. I know that, for example with Horizon Worlds now, there's ways that you can completely isolate yourself from the world space, if you feel overwhelmed or let's say you wanted to just kind of just be by yourself for a few minutes. So there's ways that you could facilitate that and build that into the platform where you kind of can dull the noise that's going on around you. That would be something that's very prevalent, probably in VR, specifically. Our platform, while we also have a VR platform using Oculus goggles for now and more to come, we also want to have this built out on the web so that everyone can access it. You don't have to have a pair of goggles for you to partake.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. Yeah. That's exciting. And obviously, the worlds are colliding. I mean, the metaverse is coming. I mean, games are cropping up in disparate spaces and then slowly creeping toward this unified metaverse. Will Inspirit participate in that?
Simcha Coleman: So, I mean, what is the metaverse?
Mike Lynn: Yeah.
Simcha Coleman: That's the real question. I mean, the metaverse is defined by the various creators who create it. And so we talk about the metaverse in a singular sense, but it's truly, it's really not that. I mean, there will be some big players who will try to take over" the metaverse," or they'll rename their company to Meta- verse and they'll try to own that. But at the end of the day, I mean, the metaverse is just an extension of humankind. And so I mean, yeah, are participating in metaverse? Sure, but we're also trying to give people the ability to participate in the metaverse on their own. So let's say a teacher should be able to go into" the metaverse" and build out a curriculum in the metaverse. And so it's not about the metaverse per se, it's more about the teacher using the technology that exists to facilitate those learning outcomes that they so desire.
Mike Lynn: And I think from a company producing technology, I think it's only smart to think about making your technology available on the larger platform. So as Meta produces their version of the metaverse and maybe Google or Microsoft or whoever, you've got an eye toward making Inspirit able to participate in the various types of technology out there.
Simcha Coleman: Sure. Yeah.
Mike Lynn: Yeah, yeah. Fantastic.
Simcha Coleman: Absolutely.
Mike Lynn: So I do want to talk a little bit about the technology. You're obviously using MongoDB to store some of the data. Do you want to talk about the stack?
Simcha Coleman: Sure. So we have our website, which is primarily, we're using a type script. We have a Golang backend, but what's more interesting, I think is the technology we're using for creating these 3D experiences. And so for that, we're using Unity, the Unity engine. And the reason why we went with that is because one of the primary focuses that we want to accomplish is what we want this to be cross- platform. We don't want this to just simply be a VR based experience. So with Unity, we have the ability to build out these complex worlds essentially, and we can export them to, let's say, WebGL, we can export them as an Oculus application, they can be a regular desktop application. So it gives us that flexibility as well, to build out an application that is cross- platform and therefore more people can access it around the world. In certain countries, where maybe Internet's not as fast or technology is not as accessible, this can enable a teacher to kind of leave the four walls of their classroom and go into a new world. And that's something that being cross- platform would enable us to facilitate that.
Mike Lynn: So tell me about the authoring capabilities. What does that look like? Is it something that a teacher that's not familiar with VR can wrap their head around?
Simcha Coleman: Yeah, absolutely. So our platform, we want it to be as customizable as possible, but also being user friendly. So right now, we have this concept called Spirits and a Spirit is basically your 3D classroom. And in this Spirit, you have the ability to basically build a classroom with the variety of 3D content, such as simulations, 3D models, and all other types of content that we're going to continuously be releasing as time goes by. And a teacher doesn't necessarily have to be so technologically savvy, all you have to do is just simply log in. You create a classroom essentially. And you have a 3D space presented in front of you where you can place those 3D models and 3D experiences right there, and then you can just quickly with a click of a button, you're in to your 3D space and you can basically teach your class minutes later.
Mike Lynn: Wow. Okay. Terrific. And tell me about the assistance that you're offering folks. Obviously, there's an entire world of models that already exist. Are you making some sort of library available to folks so they can get a quick start on creating educational material?
Simcha Coleman: Sure. Yeah. So I mean, part of what we're doing right now is compiling a vast library. We have thousands and thousands of 3D models. We have tens of simulations that are full- fledged, high quality simulations that teach specific lessons that we feel and that we've through research have determined are very in demand. And as time goes by, our goal is to really lean into the creative part of it, to allow people to build out that content themselves, create this flywheel of sorts, and allow people to basically build out all that content on their own and publish to our platform. Think of it like a Quizlet, think of it like any of these other platforms that allow people to create and share.
Mike Lynn: So what will be the business model?
Simcha Coleman: The business model. The big, the million dollar question, right? The one that gets the investors interested.
Mike Lynn: Yeah.
Simcha Coleman: I think the business model is we need to prove... We're showing that there's value to teachers, teachers want to learn because they want to teach and students want to learn, and I think time will tell where the money comes from. But I think it's important for the investors, but it's also important as a company for us to really look at what the students and teachers want. Especially in a space such as this, where it's so new, we don't want to come to any, we don't want to assume anything. And so once we determine what that looks like for the teacher who's getting the most value, how we can monetize it in a way that doesn't take away from the overall experience, that's something that we'll consider.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. Terrific. And you're working with MongoDB, are you working with the startup team?
Simcha Coleman: So yeah, I'm working with the startup team. Yeah.
Mike Lynn: Okay, awesome. And how has that been? What kind of assistance have they provided, and what advice might you have for someone in similar shoes starting a business?
Simcha Coleman: Sure. So, I mean, first of all, MongoDB, MongoDB Atlas particularly, has been invaluable. I mean, being able to spin up a cluster, and just have your database managed for you in the cloud is something that when you're working on a small team and you really need that speed and flexibility, that's where MongoDB has been just a tremendous help. I think one of the things mentioned, that Dev mentioned during the keynote, was this idea of flexibility that MongoDB provides. And I think that there's two approaches, on the one hand you want flexibility, but on the other hand, one might say that," Well, Hey, just design it really well to start off with, and then you'll be good to go. Why do you need flexibility?" Flexibility, sure. But just design it really well. Why are you designing it in a way where you need to be flexible in the future? But the reality is is that never ends up being that way. I mean, you can think all you want and you can believe all you want that you've planned for the future, but even six months down the line, especially when you're in a startup, it's just not going to be the case. You're going to shift. And we've shifted numerous times, not necessarily from a product vision, but from a stack perspective and just figuring out how we're going to handle all that data and what kind of interactions we're going to offer to users. So it's been invaluable having that flexibility that MongoDB provides. And the startup team just helps us bridge that gap between the MongoDB as a company, as a publicly traded company which it's a huge company, and us as a small startup that's trying to make it in this big world.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's great to have good partners, and MongoDB always wants to be supporting folks like yourself that are doing really valuable, interesting work. So Simcha, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It's been a great conversation.
Simcha Coleman: Thank you. Are we at time?
Mike Lynn: No, we do have more time. I do want to ask you, is there anything else you'd like to share with the listeners?
Simcha Coleman: Anything else I'd like to share with the listeners? Yeah. I mean, I think that as a side thing, I think that in the current times that we're in, we saw a lot of changes to the education landscape with hybrid learning, completely remote learning. Inspirit, we're here at this time where things are shifting, they're shifting dramatically and we don't necessarily know where they're going to go. But our goal at Inspirit is to really build a platform that can survive both the fully remote learning system, hybrid, or even a completely in person. And so I guess, yeah, just even though things change and things are constantly changing and it's unpredictable and we don't know what the future holds, stay strong.
Mike Lynn: Yeah. Oh, that's great advice. Simcha, thank you.
Simcha Coleman: Thank you.
Shane McAllister: That was a superb interview. I say that all the time, but I really do mean it on this. I love what they're building. I love that they're building on Unity. And somewhat selfishly, as a developer advocate for Realm here at MongoDB, we have a Realm SDK for Unity. And I am not sure if they're getting to use that yet, but I would certainly love to see that as a possibility in the future. Most particularly for me, and at the end, he touched on hybrid learning, which certainly has become to the fore post COVID and certainly during COVID. And I know that back then, I certainly would've liked my three kids to be doing that at the height of homeschooling. I could have probably learned awful lot of that too. I had to keep ahead of them two or three pages in the book/ anyway, that was superb from Inspirit and Simcha. So you can check them out at inspiritvr. com. Anything to add, Cedric?
Cedric Clyburn: Absolutely. I think it's one of those things that I kind of see coming up very soon. I remember starting school with almost no computers in the classroom. We were using floppy disks, big old desktops with Microsoft XP. Was it that?
Shane McAllister: At least you had computers in school, Cedric, and floppy discs. I think we had two computers in the whole school with a nice large five and a quarter inch drive and you had to book your 30 minute slot.
Cedric Clyburn: No.
Shane McAllister: So very different.
Cedric Clyburn: Oh my gosh, I guess I was spoiled. But at the point of graduating-
Shane McAllister: Spoiled. Spoiled.
Cedric Clyburn: A little bit. At the point of graduating, every student had a Chromebook.
Shane McAllister: Wow.
Cedric Clyburn: And so seeing that kind of increase in technology in only a few years, I think we're not too far away from this kind of mainstream adoption of using 3D STEM education. And honestly, I'm very excited for it. Remember, as always, links are in the show notes. And also, please remember to review and subscribe and stay tuned for our next episode from MongoDB World. So from me, Cedric Clyburn.
Shane McAllister: And me, Shane McAllister, it's been a pleasure. Talk to you all soon.
In our fifth conversation from MongoDB World 2022, MongoDB Principal Developer Advocate and host, Mike Lynn talks with Simcha Coleman of Inspirit about building a metaverse for learning. Inspirit aims to empower Magic School Bus-like education experiences, where participants are fully immersed in a three-dimensional landscape. Throughout the conversation the two discuss Inspirit's stack and how MongoDB is aiding in the team's mission.
Highlights of the conversation include:
- [04:36] Simcha Coleman and Inspirit are building a metaverse for education
- [08:12] Inspirit and STEM
- [10:43] Creeping towards a unified metaverse
- [12:24] MongoDB and Inspirit's stack
- [13:41] Authoring capabilities
- [14:47] Harnessing a world of models and considering business models
- [16:32] The MongoDB startup team and talking about the experience collaborating
- [18:40] Changes to the education landscape and staying strong