3D's new dimension to learning a language
Amid the ubiquitous adoption of online role-playing games, social networks and electronic learning, a Hong Kong start-up is delivering a new way for more people around the world to learn Putonghua.
'You've never been in a classroom like this before,' said Claus Nehmzow, chief executive at Cyberport-based 3D Avatar School.
Founded by serial entrepreneur Nehmzow in August last year, 3D Avatar School received the Silver Award for 'Best Business Start-up Company' on Friday at the government-backed Hong Kong Information and Communications Technology Awards 2011, organised by the Hong Kong Computer Society.
The online service, which was launched this year, combines the best features of e-learning and social network platforms with a lively, multi-user online gaming design.
'People are already spending time in virtual worlds and on online games,' Nehmzow said. 'Why not turn these into learning environments?'
Armed with that business strategy, 3D Avatar School last year applied and was accepted in Cyberport's IncuTrain, which is a government-funded incubation programme for small companies involved in digital entertainment and related fields.
The company currently works with about seven qualified, native-Putonghua teachers based on the mainland, Hong Kong, Canada and the United States to teach groups of four to six students in live, secure and interactive, voice-enabled three-dimensional virtual environments.
Teachers and students, who log on from individual personal computers, interact with each other and navigate their virtual world using their selected avatar, a graphical representation of each user. Avatars are used in many online role-playing games, such as the hugely popular World of Warcraft.
Nehmzow said using game mechanics, such as friendly competition in small teams, visible rewards and leader boards, helps increased engagement. Lessons are linked together into 'overarching stories' designed to keep students yearning for the next class. For example, a crime scene investigation is followed by a trial in court.
'We're in discussions with about a dozen other schools in Hong Kong and the US. Our key markets are parents and schools, so we intend to market our service through entertainment brands, telecommunications network operators and other entities interested in education.'
Lantau International School in the New Territories signed up with 3D Avatar School in February to become its first customer.
Nehmzow pointed out that the company plans to enter the mainland's English-language learning market, which consulting firm McKinsey & Co has estimated to be worth US$2.1 billion annually.
'Our goal is to become a major player in the global education space,' he said, adding that the low-cost online service can also support teaching other subjects, such as biology, chemistry and physics.
According to US-based market research service Global Industry Analysts, the global private tutoring market is forecast to be worth US$152 billion worldwide by 2015. The global e-learning market would be worth US$69 billion in the same period.
3D Avatar School has launched a new funding exercise to help finance its expansion. Last year, it managed to secure an initial HK$2 million funding from so-called 'angel investors'. This group includes Oscar Chow Vee-tsung, the managing director at Hong Kong-listed investment holding company Chevalier Pacific Holdings; Max Burger, the chairman of investment firm Golien: independent management consultant Jonathan Young; and Anshe Chung Studios, a company founded by online virtual world real-estate mogul Ailin Graef.