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Immerse Corners Language Learning Market with VR-based Technology

Rising Tide Rising Tide - Sep '19 Startup
September 17, 2019 By Jackie Connor

The Wayfinder startup company tackles a new virtual reality frontier for learning a new language.

In the United States, the path to learning a second language often begins as early as preschool and makes its way toward high school and college in the form of in-depth conversational speaking sequestered behind classroom walls, or as a brief exchange program overseas. Unless that language is a person’s native tongue, completely absorbing and retaining another language can prove difficult unless that person lives within the native-speaking country or household.

Quinn Taber, Immerse CEO, working behind the lense with children in refugee campus in the Middle East. Photo courtesy of: Quinn Taber

Quinn Taber, Immerse CEO, knows this experience all too well. For three years, he worked with several charitable organizations and volunteered in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and much of the Middle East, attempting to communicate in one of the hardest known languages: Arabic. From literal hands-on experiences of daily life, like shopping with his host family in the local marketplace, to holding a respectable conversation as an exemplary student in a classroom, Taber realized the effects of complete immersion.

“I was in a street market with a refugee buddy, and this Bedouin woman literally said ‘apple’ in Arabic,” said Taber. “I was like ‘huh?’ and then she throws it at me … she takes a bite and then sticks it in my mouth and sure enough that became front-of-mind, both long- and short-term memory, for the rest of my life. I never will forget that term because I’ve got all these different ways to retain and retrieve it.”

According to a National Highway Institute study on “Principles of Adult Learning and Instructional Systems Design,” adults retain approximately 10 percent of what is seen, 30-40 percent of what is seen and heard and 90 percent of what is seen, heard and done.

Additionally, one 2015 study from the University of Texas, Arlington, says that learning a second language using virtual reality (VR) technology allows for high memory retention and is more effective.

“When you learn anything new, there are memory pathways in which you retain that information and retrieve it,” said Taber. “One of the best ways to maximize retention and retrieval is to have as many different pathways as possible.”

Jacob Furnari, Immerse chief product officer, hikes mountains in Argentina with his homestay family and friends.. Photo courtesy of: Jacob Furnari

Jacob Furnari, Immerse chief product officer, absorbed Spanish in Argentina in 2017 after living with a homestay family. Multiple months of immersion enabled Furnari to hold conversations with his “family,” in addition to his unique daily conversations with a street vendor named Juan Carlos, who sold Furnari yerba mate tea, a popular Argentinian drink.

“I took two years of Spanish in high school, one year in college and then lived abroad,” said Furnari. “I learned some foundational knowledge there, but wasn’t learning anything else … as soon as I was placed in that environment, my language skills just skyrocketed.”

Soon following their global experiences, in 2017, Immerse became a thing of reality … virtual reality to be exact. The Wayfinder startup company utilizes Oculus Go, a wireless VR gaming headset that features built-in sensors to track movement and room-scale tracking.

“It is effective to speak with a native speaker over a Zoom call or a Skype call … we really encourage that,” said Furnari. “But our thought was, ‘How can we take that to the next level?’ Virtual reality is the natural next step.”

Photo by: Amy Vong

The VR headset does not require a pricy computer and is reasonably affordable for the consumer. As the team’s preferred VR system, the Oculus headset connects language students with an Immerse-trained American instructor via Wi-Fi signal, inviting them to “immerse” themselves into the language and culture by practicing conversations in virtual locations in addition to having virtual experiences.

“Because not everyone owns a VR headset yet, we can buy these cheaper versions that don’t require a laptop … send them off to the client, who can use them without having to buy,” said Furnari. “They can just jump on our app while the teacher can be thousands of miles away.”

According to the team, VR technology as a second-language learning tool increases user enjoyment by 300 percent and is 250 percent more effective than other methods.
Immerse is currently marketing their startup as both a product and a service to primarily large corporations in Asia due to interest in learning the English language as well as big companies’ bigger budgets and larger amount of students.

“Once the students’ headsets are there, the students plug them in and then meet with one of our teachers,” said Taber. “Once they’re in, they can go to any of these awesome virtual places and practice language together in a place that feels American.”

According to the team, Asia, namely China, Korea and Japan, currently ranks as the largest market for language learning, with English as the primary language of interest. Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia follow as the next largest batch who also aim to learn English.

“To be in this tiny little room and get picked up and put in a new location where you’re in the middle of your workday as a Japanese learner and, for an hour, you can be in California learning English – that’s pretty powerful,” said Furnari.

Immerse has recently closed a three-month pilot project with PricewaterhouseCoopers-Taiwan where their language-learning technology is being utilized to train the multinational accounting firm’s employees at five different branch locations. The team has also secured a partnership with Transparent Language, one of the leading contractors for language learning that services the U.S. government. The company will utilize Immerse’s VR learning experiences.

Noted for their large army of UCI interns coupled with the team often seen “product testing” in UCI Beall Applied Innovation’s office spaces, Immerse has been entrenched in Applied Innovation’s Wayfinder incubator program as well as utilized many Innovation Advisors.

A language learner is guided through an interactive virtual language learning session with an Immerse-trained instructor. Photo by: Amy Vong

“All of the Wayfinder courses were super helpful, like intellectual property, HR, payroll – stuff that no one knows unless you’ve started a company,” said Taber.

Although the path toward building their startup has led the team through entrepreneurship’s typical peaks and valleys, their progression moves at a respectable speed. They plan to continue disrupting the language-learning space by scaling up their presence and increasing sales through their current business-to-business model. In the next six to eight months, the team plans to venture into the business-to-consumer market, as well.

“As much as this has been a rollercoaster ride, just like everyone else I know who’s an entrepreneur, the main litmus test of your success is: ‘did you start? And then did you just keep running?’” said Taber.

Immerse eventually aims to create a nonprofit that employs refugees as language teachers online to provide global job opportunities.

“Both Quinn and I are passionate about doing something that is not only a sustainable business, but is also something we can use to create influence and help the world,” said Furnari. “If we can make the world better through that sustainable influence that we build with this business, we’re stoked.”

Find out more information about Immerse at immerse.online.

Watch the full video on Immerse’s journey and their involvement with Applied Innovation.

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