Tampa startup uses augmented reality to teach English, Spanish

A Tampa-based startup is using augmented reality to teach children English and Spanish. Using an older teenage brother animated figure named Ivan and his companion, a sloth named Watson, the company aims to make learning languages easier. And fun.

Called MARVL, short for Multimedia Augmented Reality Vocabulary Learning, the firm currently in beta is working with school systems to help children in kindergarten through second grade. 

The company plans to help K-12th graders through an app, which could even be used by parents to learn English and/or Spanish at home. The app can teach the new language while building vocabulary in the native tongue.

MARVL is co-founded by Sara Smith, an assistant professor in language education at the University of South Florida, and Murewa Olubela, who handles business affairs as chief building officer. 

The company’s goal is to eliminate the “achievement gap” students face when they are trying to learn English along with other subjects like Science in school, Olubela explains.

The app relies on familiar learning aids: flash cards, which in turn trigger characters. These characters pop up like miniature teachers on the users’ cellphones or tablets.

“Kids are really sensitive to being spoken to as babies,” explains Smith, who came up with the idea for the app. “Ivan is cool.”

Watson is “there to say things again even a little more slowly,” she adds.

Other characters, who still are unnamed, are available in a limited capacity to help users of different genders and backgrounds identify easily with the characters, Olubela adds.

Smith, who participated in Tampa Bay Wave’s 2020 TechWomen Rising accelerator program, became acquainted with Olubela through Assistant Professor Diana Hechavarria of USF’s Muma College of Business. The two went on to co-found MARVL in 2020.

Smith, who holds a PhD in Philosophy, Applied Linguistics from the University of Oxford, has a decade of research into how people learn a new language. Olubela holds master’s degrees in business administration, science and arts from USF.

MARVL, which is based at Tampa Bay Wave in downtown Tampa, has received $83,500 in grant money from the National Science Foundation and the USF Foundation. 

It also has attracted attention in startup competitions. MARVL made the top 15 cut of companies competing at January’s Startup of the Year Summit in Tampa. It was among an elite 200 companies chosen as semi-finalists for the Global Silicon Valley Cup, the largest worldwide competition for EdTech startups. 

There were more than 750 companies in the pool to compete in the April 4-6 event in San Diego.

“... It's a huge honor as it validates what we know, that MARVL will have a broader impact in the education community as we scale,” Olubela says. “We look forward to networking and showcasing MARVL with the global EdTech community.” 

MARVL currently is available at some charter schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties. It is reaching out to school systems nationally, with a goal of being available globally sometime next year.

It is interested in working with non-profits and other organizations that might provide research information about how to involve parents, Olubela says.

“We don’t discriminate who gets access to the apps itself,” she explains.

The company plans to expand the language offerings, beginning with Haitian Creole.
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Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune