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Jen Helms '12 creates interactive games designed to teach children and adults different languages including Spanish, French and English.

Jen Helms

Start Me Up: Jen Helms ’12

Entrepreneur combines immersive learning with video games to teach other languages

By Rachel Farrell

4/29/2015 - Editor's Note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights young members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.

Jen Helms’ digital entrepreneurial journey began in the unlikeliest of places: Yosemite National Park.

While serving as an outdoor science educator for the Yosemite Institute, Helms witnessed the power of game-based, immersive learning. Her students, some who struggled with geology and ecology lessons in the classroom, were “totally transformed” by the experience of playing educational games in a real-world context, she says.

“Surrounded by one of the greatest ecological wonders that exist, they were so much more engaged in what they were learning,” Helms explains. “It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of video games as a tool for learning.”

Fast-forward eight years, and Helms has taken that insight and turned it into a business: Playmation Studios, a startup that she co-founded with her brother Justin. They create interactive games designed to teach children and adults different languages — Spanish, French, English and, in the near future, Italian and Chinese.

Word play

Sold as apps through the iTunes store, Playmation Studios’ games attempt to simulate the benefits of learning a language through in-country immersion. Users play — quite literally — with language by dragging and dropping objects into a scene and seeing how that translates into phrases or sentences. “So, if you move a boy into the scene, the game can tell you, ‘There is a boy,’” explains Helms. “And if you move an apple to the boy, it can tell you, ‘The boy is eating an apple.’”

Powered by a “natural language generation system,” the game provides instant, dynamic feedback to players as they move objects, which in turn enables them to deconstruct meaning from those changes as they would in real life. Other language-learning games, by contrast, simply tie vocabulary to pictures. “We are taking a fundamentally better approach to the learning process,” Helms says.

Too, by engaging with natural language in this context, users rapidly advance their reading and listening comprehension. “People are really quite surprised how quickly they are able to understand the language,” she adds.

Playmation Studios isn’t Helms’ first attempt at entrepreneurship. Before starting the company 2013, she and Justin created Solution Dojo, an idea lab that designed and launched a website and two mobile apps, including FitCycle, an android fitness app that’s been downloaded more than 10,000 times. Eventually, the siblings shifted their focus to their mutual passion for linguistics and education.

It was around this time that Helms called upon lessons learned in Robert Wolcott’s Corporation Innovation and New Ventures course. “All ideas are worth including when you brainstorm,” says Helms, who majored in entrepreneurship, social enterprise, and management and strategy at Kellogg. “The point is just to get it all down. [Also,] constrain your brainstorm by thinking through a specific problem you are trying to solve.”

Making virtual a reality

To get Playmation Studios up and running, Helms has made a lot of sacrifices — particularly in terms of time and money. After graduating from Kellogg, she deferred her education loans, moved out to the Bay area, and relinquished any job opportunities to focus on the startup full-time. She also bootstrapped the company using income earned from a part-time teaching gig along with a small family investment.

Launching a startup “definitely changes your lifestyle, because you have to try to put everything you can into what you are starting,” she says, but quickly adds that “It’s totally worth it … to be creating something that I’m super excited about, and I believe is making a difference.”

Helms is working on a number of initiatives to drive downloads, which number about 6,000 so far, including releasing a new game in app stores.

Ultimately, along with expanding Playmation’s language offers, she hopes to build the games’ engine to the point where “it can take what someone types into the game or speaks into the game and respond to it,” she says. “We envision this game that is completely an immersive experience — where players are able to input and interact with this really virtual world, and all the while be immersed and learn a foreign language.”

As a former educator, Helms is excited at the games’ potential to simulate the experience of studying language abroad and bring those benefits to a segment of people who might not be able to travel overseas.

“Just like how not every student can go to Yosemite National Park to learn geology, not everyone has the opportunity to go abroad,” she says. “These games could perhaps provide that immersive experience.”

Read more in the Start Me Up Series: