App teaches foreign languages through conversations in virtual reality

Creators Jordan and Lee Brighton say the platform has great potential for individuals to learn at home by talking to a digital avatar

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      As any good company founder can attest, inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places. New experiences have spawned a number of famous ideas, offering in-the-moment creativity and fresh discoveries. But for Jordan and Lee Brighton—life partners and creators of Virtro Entertainment, a Vancouver virtual-reality company—it was a look to the past that helped determine their future.

      “Many years ago, we spent four months travelling around Europe,” Lee tells the Georgia Straight, seated across the table at the pair’s offices at SFU’s Venture Labs. “We went to Croatia, in this beautiful setting on the coast, and met a wonderful family down there in an Airbnb. They came out one evening and brought their bottles of homemade wine and sat down to try to talk to us. We didn’t know one word of Croatian, though, and we had to keep apologizing because we couldn’t communicate. Afterwards, it struck us that it was such a great opportunity to get to know them and their culture, and that we’d missed out. We thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’ What would the world look like if we were able to learn about and understand other cultures and communicate on a different level?”

      The pair, who are originally from Melbourne, Australia, planned to address the problem by creating a language-learning platform. Duolingo and Rosetta Stone—two apps that teach reading, writing, and grammar—dominated the market, but the couple found both of them “mind-numbingly boring” because of their barely interactive interfaces. Instead, they wanted to build software to let individuals learn through conversation. Interested in the burgeoning capabilities of virtual reality, the Brightons aimed to design a digital avatar capable of answering and asking questions in an immersive environment.

      When they first wanted to create the platform, however, the technology lagged behind. The design needed to convert speech into text, use artificial intelligence (AI) to figure out how to respond, and then have a mechanism to turn text back to speech. In order to hold a conversation, Virtro’s project would require a cheap, good-quality virtual-reality headset and an AI program that could run natural language processing, a branch of computing that helps machines understand and interpret human speech. Finally, over the past few months, those technologies have become available.

      “Right now, the platform lets you play the game Go Fish with a digital human,” Jordan says. “You don’t learn something by just saying it once—you have to repeat it over and over. This is a great way to learn basic conversation and numbers, because you’re repeating a lot of the same words and phrases.

      “It’s still early days—we only got it working this week,” she continues. “But it’s a proof of concept that shows that the technology operates from end to end. It’s got some bugs and glitches in it, but we’re not just making card games. It’s the first step to creating something where we can sit here and have a conversation in the comfort of our home. Now that virtual-reality headsets have come down in price, that’s a possibility.”

      “We want to offer a service to early-stage intermediate learners, from high-school age to 30-year-olds,” Lee adds. “We’ll design it so you go from one setting to another in a big arc, and you have to travel to different places and do different things. We want to focus on what a person needs to do when they first visit a country: buy coffee, go to the doctor, all the basic actions. We’re going to put that into more of a role-playing game.”

      While Virtro’s platform—named Argotian—will help language learners communicate better with those in other countries, the company has grander plans for how the technology can contribute to global aid projects. At first, the software will help individuals gain a better grasp of English, tapping into the Asian and European markets to offer paying customers the opportunity to boost their language skills. After that, the company wants to give the software to developing countries for free, to help change locals’ lives.

      “Learning English opens a whole world of job opportunities for people overseas,” Lee says. “NGOs in foreign countries try hard to teach individuals English so they have the chance to work with tourists. Those are good-paying jobs and have the ability to transform a family’s financial well-being.

      “We also want to use the technology to help preserve some of the endangered languages,” she continues. “We’re Aussies, and in Australia the Aboriginals are losing their culture. Their language isn’t written, and there’s no other way to save it other than conversation. The way they transfer their language to their children is to sit down on the sand with a stick in their hand and draw pictures as they tell stories. The only way to transfer those languages is through narratives, and we think our platform could really help that. And then if they were willing, we’d also love to work with First Nations communities here to help make sure their languages are not forgotten and help increase the number of fluent speakers.”

      “This project isn’t just about learning English or other languages,” Jordan agrees. “It’s going to start out that way, but we want to make a social impact. We want to do something that can make a difference.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays