diplomatic language services virtual reality

Virtual Reality for Language Learning



Welcome to the first episode of Vernacular Reality! In this episode, our host, Blythe Collins, sits down with Diplomatic Language Services coworkers Sean McBeth (Immersive Software Developer) and Chris Bellas (President) to provide an intro to DLS and discuss the basics of language learning with virtual reality.


Can you tell the audience a little bit about DLS and our background? What made DLS decide to bring VR into language learning?

Bellas: Diplomatic Language Services was started in 1985 by the former Assistant Dean of the Foreign Service Institute. The business was started to provide individualized, tailored, one-on-one language instruction mostly to foreign service professionals and then eventually, to people in various roles in the government. So, you have a lot of people that might not fit the semester schedule or the language requirements where they’re traveling to are more specific. So, they set up this school, literally across the street from the Foreign Service Institute back in 1985 in Arlington, Virginia, to serve all of those students. Since then, the company has grown, and we’ve gotten into a lot of different other services. In terms of VR, we identified that there was a really good opportunity in that individualized, tailored, one-on-one language instruction that’s really the core of the business.


For those of us who have never used VR, can you give an overview about what it is? How does it differ from AR?

McBeth: So, virtual reality, augmented reality. They’re both parts of different ends of the spectrum of what we call ‘immersive software.’ We try to replicate that using technology in being able to put a head-mounted display on a person that has LCDs inside of them that allows you to have a view-master look into a fantastical world and move around within it, completely disconnected from where you are in the real world. We can create these different opportunities for people to experience things without necessarily having to travel to them. It’s all about creating new environments that people can bring themselves into and experience things as if they were really there. So, that’s virtual reality.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is augmented reality, which has a lot of the same goals of giving people a feeling of the reality of a fantastical object, but we approach it from a different direction. Instead of bringing the user into a fantastical environment, we bring the fantastical elements into the user’s environment. So, you have that bi-directional focus within the immersive software industry of ‘are we asking users to react to something that we’ve created for them, or are we creating something that reacts to the user?’


How did you decide that DLS was ready to move into the VR space?

Bellas: I think we got serious about it when our customers started asking us to look into this. When we first started looking into it, we expected that there would be a lot of people out there that were further down the road on this specifically, in terms of VR/AR applications, language learning, or more for what we do: preparing people for an overseas mission. In reality, it turns out that we were a little early-on and we could get out in front of this wave if we started paddling now.

I remembered how inspired I was when the Microsoft HoloLens first came out and loved the demos with Minecraft that they were putting out. So, in circling back to that, I said ‘ok, there probably is a real opportunity here, but we need to design something that is specific for what we do at DLS.’ Because what we do is very specific and meant to be about each individual student – how can we set them up for success? So, we felt like we needed to bring somebody in who had some vision for that, an appreciation for what we do, and a good understanding of all of the things that the technology can do and make possible.

For me, it wasn’t until I put on the headset and experienced a complete proof-of-concept version of our own product to feel that same inspiration of being put into, in this case, Taxia village in China, and walking around a tulou building and experiencing that firsthand to say ‘I’ve had this experience. This is real, this is immersive in a way that’s congruent with the experiences I had in learning Chinese in college and what I’ve witnessed over the years at DLS.’ I think since then, we’ve gotten really excited about it. We’re looking at ramping it up and bringing somebody on board to help Sean and augment the team. Everybody’s thrilled to be working on this.


McBeth: When I got the call from DLS that they were interested in hiring me and I started learning more about the company, it seemed like somebody was writing a fiction about my life – hearing ‘one of our biggest clients is the Defense Language Institute.’ That’s how my parents met, at DLI! That’s how I am a person – because of the need to train people in foreign languages.

We look at the education industry as a whole and there’s a lot of interest in improving learning outcomes and different uses of technology to get students to learn better, more comfortably, faster, or retain knowledge better. There’s really a large growing body of science showing that this concept called embodied cognition is a really important tool to bring students down that path of learning. Embodied cognition is the idea of not just dumping information on a student, not just telling them something or giving them text to read, but engaging them physically and emotionally in activity and activating different cognitive areas within the brain to force that learning to create different neural pathways to be able to dig that information down into someone’s brain.

We’ve seen it in use in fighter pilot training for 40 years. The very best fighter pilots start off in virtual reality simulations. We see that it gets people competent at flying far, far faster than just book learning. Firefighters have started using it. I’ve built applications for warehouse workers to be able to learn how to repair industrial equipment. Things that would normally be incredibly expensive to take offline for even a few minutes, they can now simulate doing it, as if it were real.

Just a few years ago, Walmart made big news in the virtual reality industry thanks to a multi-million-dollar contract where they used VR to train warehouse operations – to train people how to work efficiently and safely within their gigantic logistics machine. So, there’s really a lot of big wins that I think we can have in terms of using these virtual environments to teach people things that are difficult to teach just by book learning or are difficult to teach in the real world because they’re expensive to set up or they’re dangerous to do or they’re just not physically available to do.

Speaking of physical availability, we’re seeing a huge use of virtual reality in teleconferencing situations with the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of conferences have to be cancelled and a lot of them have moved to teleconferencing or virtual reality. We’ve seen how people have felt some dissatisfaction with teleconferencing – it’s not really a complete replacement for a face-to-face conversation. When we start doing it in virtual reality, we start to get a little more of that feeling of being in a real place, talking with real people.

It’s something as simple as just being able to direct attention to a specific person. Whereas in a standard teleconferencing app, you have this grid of faces all staring back at you, like you’re in some sort of interrogation. Even if they’re talking to somebody completely different, they still look like they’re looking at you. You have the camera, you have the screen, and they’re all offset from each other and you can never look a person directly in the eye. But when you’re in VR, you can have this simulation of a face-to-face conversation that feels so much more real. These two areas that are such big wins for virtual reality right now. When you think about what we do as a business – what do we do? We train people for social interactions. This is really an amazing opportunity to put this technology to use.


So, this is particularly timely right now given the COVID-19 pandemic?

Bellas: It’s interesting because when we first were planning, designing, and developing the concept for this project, we always had online in mind. How we were designing and building it was meant to perform well when you’ve got people geographically located anywhere.

So, we were thinking that before this all came up and we did successfully transition all of our in-person classes that weren’t already online. As of March 16th, all of those classes transitioned online, and we’ve continued to steadily do that since then. We’re planning to continue to do that for as long as necessary. We’re really fortunate that early on, a lot of the feedback from students and instructors was very positive and very focused on thanking us for making the transition quickly and swiftly. Since then, we’ve actually gotten some really good feedback that the experience has been great and all types of great content from students and instructors in terms of feedback to be able to get a sense of what that experience is like. There is a big opportunity with VR and in some of the ways Sean just mentioned.

That connection is a real value in the student and instructor experience. Somebody told me once that you can’t influence an organization that you’re not connected to and I think it’s the same way with a person. So many of the missions that our students have – if they’re not able to connect with the people in the places that they’re going to – that mission might end up suffering. In the short run, we want to make that connection between the student and instructor strong so that the learning experience is positive throughout. This is definitely an opportunity to do that. We tried to design the product, again, not just from a technical perspective in terms of doing it online, but also making sure that we weren’t disintermediating all the good stuff that’s already happening in the classroom, between the students and instructors.

Another thing somebody told me is that the materials make up maybe 10 – 15% at the most of what’s important about the class and 80 – 85% of it is the instructor. So, part of the goal of this product is to empower everyone with these tools. We’re excited to be able to use this as a way to enhance the online experience if this continues on, in terms of the COVID pandemic, but also we’re hoping that even when people are in the same building together, that they will get excited about the VR portion of their language learning experience and having that be an integrated part of their program at DLS even when they’re conducted in-person.


Can you tell me anything about what you are developing right now?

McBeth: To support that idea of enhancing what we already do well, our first concept is this guided tour through a foreign city. So, we have acquired some imagery of a Chinese tourist town and we’ve overlaid lesson material within it. Then, you basically visit this town with your teacher and walk around with them as they give you a guided tour of this area and role-play different scenarios like going into a restaurant to buy a meal or asking for directions to get to a hotel or buying souvenirs at a little market.

It’s really an incredible sort of experience. Technology-wise, it’s relatively simple technology, but I think sometimes that’s some of the best uses of technology. We’re really just getting to a core idea. I’ve spent so much time testing this app out, I feel like I can get around this town! I know the streets now. Somebody will ask me, as we’re working on it, ‘where was that little kiosk again?’ And I’m like, ‘oh, you go down this street and you turn left, and you go around the corner’. Being able to give a person directions in a town that neither of you have ever been to is amazing. How do you replicate that in another way? I don’t know.


When can we expect to get our hands on this? What’s planned for the next few months?

Bellas: We’re constantly making improvements to the Taxia village experience that Sean just described and to all of the components of our VR system. We’ll continue to make improvements on that for years to come. We’re really excited to hopefully start integrating virtual reality, starting with this example of the Taxia village, into some of our Chinese language learning programs.

I think part of the benefit to this and part of why our customers are looking for a language services business to do this is because that integration requires a lot. There’s training students and instructors for a new type of experience, as we had to do for the online training. There’s all of the instructional design and curriculum integration that’s beyond me. So, I’m looking forward to seeing that come together to where this is an integral part of it that enhances language training in ways that people are like ‘yes, this was a gap for us before.’ We’ve filled it with VR in a really elegant way that’s going to make our ability to build out programs for all types of students and needs going forward and to set people up for success in all types of new experiences.

Currently, our plan is to integrate our virtual reality experience into our Chinese language programs in November of 2020.

Learn more about our VR development and plans in the next episode of Vernacular Reality!

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