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Translating Code into Language Learning—and Cozad Victory

6/8/2015 8:45:00 AM By Tom Moone, CS @ ILLINOIS

FlipWord, a language learning app created by CS grad student Thomas Reese, was the winning project of the 2015 Cozad New Venture Competition in the non-university-funded projects category.

Thomas Reese giving his presentation during the final round of the 2015 Cozad New Ventures Competition.
Thomas Reese giving his presentation during the final round of the 2015 Cozad New Ventures Competition.

Reese has long had an interest in languages. He studied abroad in Hong Kong as an undergraduate, where he became interested in learning Chinese. In less than two years, he became fluent. That experience made him interested in how to improve the language learning experience.  He saw the smorgasbord of software and apps currently available, but he often found them lacking.

Hackathons Pave the Way

Reese had not really engaged in any language software since he developed a small program for Spanish in high school. Then, in 2014 he had an inspiration for a new type of language learning software that he prototyped at the inaugural HackIllinois in 2014.

This hackathon was where an initial, primitive version of FlipWord emerged, winning the “Most Technically Challenging” prize. “That was the start of everything,” Reese said.

FlipWord is an application that is installed in a browser. On any visited webpage, FlipWord changes a few words that appear into the foreign language the user is learning. For example, the word cat would appear as the Spanish equivalent of the word, gato, throughout a page. Hovering the mouse over the new word would reveal the English. Learning a foreign language becomes a more regular and passive activity.

Unfortunately, even though it worked as intended, FlipWord was painfully slow. “It could take anywhere from a few seconds to thirty seconds for each page to fully load,” Reese said. “Thirty seconds is an excessive wait for a webpage.”

So, Reese put the project aside—for several months, in fact. Then, in November 2014 Reese had a Eureka moment, suddenly thinking of an approach that would dramatically increase the speed of the page loading, making it a more viable product.

Reese began attending hackathons regularly to provide concentrated time when he could work on modules of his language learning tool. “The goal was to work on a new piece every weekend that would eventually grow into the bigger vision,” he said. “For each hackathon I used a completely unique code base, but in the end they can be pulled together under one roof.”

And his work has been paying off. Reese and the teammates he finds to help him with his hackathon projects have started regularly winning prizes, many within the past month.

At HackIllinois 2015, Reese developed a verbal conversation partner in the form of a cute polar bear named Snowy. This earned the ‘Best Use of Google’ prize.

Just a few weeks later, he teamed up with CS undergraduate Joseph Milla and Jeffery Huang at VandyHacks in Nashville, Tennessee, to create one of the most complex parts of the system, winning the Digital Reasoning Award.

Once again paired up with Milla, Reese and Milla won the Campus 1871 hackathon held April 10-12 in Chicago with their project Languallama. Languallama was developed to enable language learners to have a conversation with a native speaker, either actual or simulated.

At MadHacks, Reese and his teammates won the Wisconsin Idea Prize for their project UpTalk. From left: Anil Jason, Joseph Milla, Oreoluwa Alebiosu, and Thomas Reese.
At MadHacks, Reese and his teammates won the Wisconsin Idea Prize for their project UpTalk. From left: Anil Jason, Joseph Milla, Oreoluwa Alebiosu, and Thomas Reese.

At MadHacks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison held April 18-19, Reese teamed up yet again with Milla and added teammates Oreoluwa Alebiosu and Anil Jason to create UpTalk, another project to help learners speak with native speakers. This hackathon was more constricted, entailing just 24 hours rather than the typical 36.

Despite the shortened time, the team developed four working components for UpTalk: a chat system for communicating with people around the world, a chat bot for practicing when live speakers were unavailable, a conversation game to help teach context flow in conversations, and personal learning statistics and feedback to make learning more like a game.

With UpTalk, the team won the Wisconsin Idea Prize and will be representing the university at an all-expense paid trip to the Global Hackathon in Seoul, South Korea, July 29-August 1, which they are all looking forward to attending.

Most recently, Reese attended Redbird Hacks at Illinois State University April 24-26. There he received the Most Potentially Disruptive Hack prize, a recognition of the potential impact of his project.

Cozad Competition

The Cozad New Venture Competition encourages students to create new businesses. Hosted by the Technology Entrepreneur Center, this year’s competition program started in January, with teams submitting proposals. Over the course of the semester, a series of workshops and presentations helped winnow down the entrants. Of the 100 teams that originally applied to the competition, 18 made it to the finals, where they competed for nearly $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.

FlipWord passively translates particular words on a visited Web page to the equivalent word in the language the uer wants to learn.
FlipWord passively translates particular words on a visited Web page to the equivalent word in the language the uer wants to learn.

On April 24, finalists in the Cozad competition held a showcase, and the top six projects presented a pitch to a panel of university and industry judges. Having honed his project through the many hackathons, and the frequent practice of delivering a business pitch from the many competitions, Reese was confident he did well in his final pitch. Nevertheless, the win was an exciting one.

The prizes Reese received are designed to help Cozad winners launch their new company:

  • Creative services from Adjacency
  • Legal advice and assistance from Singleton Law Firm in Champaign
  • Office space in the Research Park
  • $15,000

“This was something I was already motivated to work on,” Reese said. “The Cozad Competition made me think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

In particular Reese noted that the experience of working through the requirements for the Cozad competition means that he now has an established pitch deck and a business plan.

The winner of the university-funded-research category at Cozad was PSYONIC, which creates advanced prosthetic hands and which was founded by Neuroscience graduate student Aadeel Akhtar and Mechanical Science and Engineering undergraduate Patrick Slade.

The Next Step

Reese intends to work with Milla to launch FlipWord as a business—soon. This summer he will finish up his master’s thesis as well as get FlipWord ready for launch. He has every expectation that the product will be available for users worldwide by the end of summer.

If he has his way, Reese will help turn everyone into a language maven. “I’m super excited about language learning,” Reese said, “and I’m working on creating a startup to turn this into something useful to a lot of people.”

Additional information can be found at the FlipWord website.