Big Ideas: “Using Virtual Reality and AI to immerse in a new language” with Lee Brighton, Co-Founder of Virtro Entertainment

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Brighton, Co-Founder and CSO of Virtro Entertainment. A serial entrepreneur, Lee loves new tech and sharing it with others. Lee is instrumental in the creation of Argotian, an AI / […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Brighton, Co-Founder and CSO of Virtro Entertainment. A serial entrepreneur, Lee loves new tech and sharing it with others. Lee is instrumental in the creation of Argotian, an AI / VR language learning platform that gives learners an unprecedented advantage to conveniently and affordably learn to speak a new language via a fully immersive experience.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I started my career as a science teacher, I had no idea I would end up working at the leading edge of technological development. VR and AI were little more than a dream back then — even the web hadn’t had it’s dot com boom yet!

My first exposure to the internet had me puzzled. Some techies in the company I worked for offered me the privilege of watching them send a message. I watched an ugly black screen with green text showing country after country as it bounced through 26 locations on its way to Berkley. My comment was “you know you could just pick up the phone, right?”but their excitement proved to be too infectious and shortly after I bought a computer and officially entered the tech world.

Now it’s hard to imagine being in another industry but tech. I love the unrelenting pace of new technology evolving and disruption markets for the better. While so many negatives stories exist around the changes AI will bring, I feel it is a world of opportunity a glass half full or half emptykind of thinking.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Without having a clear vision of what I wanted to do, I completed a teaching/science degree. It was interesting but within 2 years I accepted a challenge to help in a community with people from 3 aboriginal tribes in the middle of the Western Australian desert. We were 1 hr from the nearest “town” (i.e. a pub, a store which was also the post office and a fuel station) and over 1000km from Perth. It was challenging, the desert can be so cold at night and at other times, dusty and hot. However, by far the biggest challenge was coming to terms with how the young people were living.

I will never forget the day I arrived, I’d driven for 3 days (and nights) by myself across Australia. I was tired, hot, needing a shower and this young child no more than 3 raced over to me, hugged my legs and asked if she could sit on my knee. I was taken aback. I looked down at this wee soul as she proceeded to wipe her very runny nose across my jeans (my stomach definitely churned). She was crawling with lice and had open flesh sores all over her arms and legs. Every part of me wanted to run… and my eyes welled with tears.

This was a child in my home country. I had not been transported to a foreign land where there were war-torn ravaged children. It was in Australia. I had lived comfortably, enjoying a frugal but well cared for middle-class upbringing, and had never, never expected a world like this to exist in my own country.

Though dirty, itchy and obviously poor, this little child was still willing to give away the thing she had left — her love. Without a doubt it was one of the most confusing, perplexing and overwhelming toughest jobs I have ever done, it was one of those times that give you a deftness of resolve to overcome challenges and a very different outlook on humanity. It’s one of those moments that challenges me to be a better person and to always work to create a positive change.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

We are changing language learning for the better with Argotian, our VR and AI language learning platform. There are figures that indicate up to 95% of people who start learning a language fail. It’s hard to believe, but time and time again I can ask a room full of people “who has started learning a language?”and there is always a sea of hands. Then I ask them to keep their hands up if they are now fluent and only a few tentative hands remain in the air. This analogy delivers a telling message — most people fail to achieve fluency.

I totally understand the pain. I have tried most systems (multiple times) on the market today in an attempt to improve my knowledge of Spanish and French. At best I can only say a few words and understand a few more. Yet all the while I want to travel overseas with the burning desire to be able to speak to the locals. I want to learn about their lives, their stories and experience their culture. Language is the barrier and the doorway to another culture, and it’s time that we made changes to increase our capacity to learn.

There are many applications that will help you learn words. Everything from electronic flash card systems to a never-ending stream of video coaching — but it hasn’t helped me or most other people.

In 2016 our niche became clear. We wanted to create a bridge technology to take learners from words and vocab through to speaking practice and conversations. We wanted to provide a language fluency system for learners.

We realised that several emerging technologies would provide us with the solutions and as they found market ready maturity we began building our platform.

We are building artificially intelligent characters for learners to speak with. It sounds like fun — and it is — but more importantly, it removes the fear of speaking with real people. So many language learners get embarrassed with their pronunciation or can’t find people who will patiently sit and practise with them. AI characters don’t care how many times you want to practise, as I jokingly say to people, they are infinitely patient. A big bonus is that we are using the smarts around AI technology (Machine Learning) to provide a personalised learning experience for each person. It’s really cool to learn at the level and speed you are comfortable with.

Like most people we speak with, we hated learning in boring flash card styled apps. We love playing video games, so naturally, we wanted the learning to be a part of a really cool, engaging video game. I mean why shouldn’t you get to learn a language as a result of playing one of your favourite games. It makes perfect sense that it would be a better way to learn.

Then for the final touch, we wanted to deliver the learning in a truly immersive world. Now while most of us can’t afford the time or the money to go to France to learn French or Costa Rica to learn Spanish, we can afford a $199 USD headsetand the cost of a couple of cups of coffee each month to play a cool game in Virtual Reality, all while learning a new language.

There is a steady stream of research showing that using VR dramatically increases your ability to learn quickly and to retain the information you learnt for far longer than traditional learning, so it just makes sense to use VR to learn languages.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Our first language is English because that is where we can make a life-changing impact. If you have English, a whole world of learning opens up via the internet and online portals as well as books and documentaries. Likewise, it dramatically expands your work opportunities both in securing a job and in career advancement. So many people earn less while doing the same job, just because language is a barrier. We can change that and this program is going to have a huge impact for English learners.

Our second pillar or focus is to develop language training in other languages. As tourists, we all travel with the intent of having an experience. I’m sure you have heard people say “I am going soak in the culture”or “I really want to experience the food and culture of…” I’ve done it myself only to be frustrated because without language you can’t access the culture. Sure, you can have the tourist whitewashed version, but you really can’t experience Italy without Italian or France without French. Language is intrinsically tied to culture.

The impact of language hit home for us on a trip to Croatia in 2015. We’d arrived at our AirBnB and the host had kindly met us to show us everything. He was a lovely fellow and had brought a bottle of wine for us so we asked him to share a glass with us. His English wasn’t good and he continually apologized but we continued to chat and ask him questions about his background and personal story.

He was a professional soccer play who had given up his game for a gun as he fought to protect and keep his wife and his 2-year-old daughter alive in the 9-month siege of Dubrovnik. He told us how the Serbians rolled in in tanks and pointed to the end of the valley. They began shelling and he and his family had to flee into the walled city. They were surrounded because the soldiers from Montenegro blocked them on the South and he had had to fight for his life.

His story was amazing and it really made an impact. Many times following this, especially as we travelled to other towns and cities on our travels, we wondered how many stories like this we were missing and what that would mean if we could all really speak to one another.

We imagined a world where we could communicate and share experiences and better understand one another’s cultures and heritage. We knew too that this could make a profound difference in how we deal with other people and perceive cultures that we meet back home on a daily basis. It became our driving force for change.

Our third pillar is the biggest challenge we will face and that is to contribute to saving endangered languages. We are losing so many languages and consequently culture and heritage. We want to find a way to support young generations to learn and reconnect to the language of their heritage. I personally lived with some Aboriginals in Australia and like the First Nation’s in Vancouver of the Native Americans or Hill Tribes in Peru, the language is not written. It is a big challenge and we are keen to add our small contribution to the solution.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

There has been much talk about just how real is virtual reality,and the truth is that goodVR is uncanny to reality. We’ve all seen the videos of people in VR headsets with shock and surprise reactions to their experiences; good VR content is captivating and by the name ‘a virtual simulation of reality’. This does raise the unintended consequences question of‘does such an immersive medium negatively affect our interactions within the space?’

I mentioned earlier how language learners will experience an increased level of confidence due to the virtual environment, but on the flip side, some VR players will feel less responsible for their actions as they feel they will have less impact in VRAlthough for safety reasons this something to be aware of when creating a Social VR platform like AltspaceVR or in VR multiplayer whereby real people are engaging in a virtual world, it is less of an issue in Argotian. This is because learners will engage with AI characters only — not real people.

However, should the issue of irresponsible play arise (such as players regularly using swear words), the AI will be trained to recognise and not respond to swear words. Our AI will also be able to record a harsh tone and suspect foul play and shoot an alert to the teacher admin.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

This is a great idea whose time has come. The fact that we spend nearly $50 billion per year on language learning paints a clear picture that there is an appetite for language learning. The high failure rate amongst language learners screams the need for change.

While initially, our focus will be on the education institution market, we have a consumer-facing version scheduled for release by 2020 and this will be a game changer. This level of disruption in language learning is well overdue.

As females in tech, we have self-funded our development, so due to juggling client work to fund our development, we have been slower to market than we hoped. Nevertheless, people are very supportive and want to help us. I believe these same people are ready to jump behind us and bring a massive wave of change to language learning globally.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

If you have ever said the words, ‘how hard can it be?’ you need to wash your mouth out with soap. It can be very hard and very tough and sometimes things can seem overwhelming with no way forward.

It’s at that time that you either have to find a way to go around, go over, under or just plain punch through the obstacles. You need to swallow your pride, it has no place in a startup. Lastly, you have to be an expert in everything. It is hard, but if you truly believe that you will in some small way make the world a better place, then you will find the courage you need to push further and crash through another wall.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

There is no such thing as future proofing your career. Be open to change — mostly changing you. Recognise the opportunities and grow quickly to take advantage of them.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I’d invest it in my team and invest in training my next team members, so we can create more content and get to market sooner.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career? Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I think these questions are best answered in my presentation for Tech Vancouver. Take a listen here.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Thanks for the offer, our story is our message. We would only entertain a VC as passionate about change and social good as we are. That will be a very special VC. They will find us when the time is right.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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