Words With Bears Wins Women 2.0 Startup Weekend 2011

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By Judy Tuan (Participant, Women 2.0 Startup Weekend 2011)

What do video games, language, bears, and #changetheratio have to do with each other?

The answer lies in this video. Here’s the story of how an idea turned into the startup Words With Bears at Women 2.0 Startup Weekend.

I’d never been to a Startup Weekend or even to a local entrepreneurship event before, but Women Who Code organizer Sasha Laundy encouraged me to sign up.

The day before Startup Weekend officially began, I went to the optional pre-weekend mixer at Blazing Cloud. There’s where mentor Jen-Mei Wu said to us, “Just pitch! Do it for the experience.” Up until then, I didn’t know I would pitch an idea, but I was inspired by her encouragement. But what to pitch?

Ever since the Kinect came out last year, I’ve had a dream of making a game utilizing the Kinect to teach the Na’vi language. Something like flashcards: the game tells you to jump in another language, teaches you that it means jump by showing a character jumping, and rewards you when you jump, too.

On Friday night, over 150 people piled in to The Hatchery for the weekend. Tons of people had pitches, and mine was #42.

I greeted everyone in Na’vi (Kaltxì ma smukan, ma smuke! Hello, brothers and sisters!), explained that I loved games, and wanted to build this Kinect app. In the chaos that followed the pitches, four amazing people found me, and we had this crazy moment of combustion. We wanted to do something different, and we were drawn to each others’ enthusiasm.

We were assigned some tables in the lobby, and went straight to work introducing ourselves: Jen Arguello is a former Microsoft employee who worked on the Kinect’s speech software. Lukas Blakk loves open-source, and was especially jazzed about trying to get the Kinect to work via a browser plugin. Elsa Kim researches the intersection between technology and humanity and was brimming with ways to use Kinect technology. James Elkins moved to California relatively recently, and was excited to jump right in and work with some frameworks.

Chocolate croissants rained on us Saturday morning, sweet and plentiful, as we got to work. Lukas and James spoke to mentor Joel Franusic from Microsoft, cycling through several different open frameworks before finally getting up and running with Microsoft’s official Kinect SDK.

Jen, Elsa and I worked hard on the defining the product. Who will our audience be? Why are we doing this? Is it possible to extend the flashcard base with community-created content? Can we make our product into a platform instead of just a game? The weekend passed in a frenzy of market research, note-taking and a thousand post-it notes.

Some of our conversations with the mentors really stand out in my memory:

  • Cindy spoke to us about her own experience with language learning. She tied that discussion in to our general strategy for our presentation, reminding us of the importance of defining the problem clearly in the first thirty seconds.
  • Jen-Mei helped us refine our presentation further by asking us pointed questions about what we were trying to accomplish.
  • Sasha took us and the Knights of Papillon on a dessert break through the rain, to make sure none of us went nuts.

On Sunday evening, we piled back in to the main room to watch the final presentations. There were so many good ideas! The Bears got more and more nervous as the time for our presentation drew near. But when we were called to the deck, we made sure we had all of our places right. Jen was on slides. I gave the introductory problem statement and a live demo of James and Lukas’ work. Elsa covered the rest: marketing research, our reasons for choosing the Kinect, why language education, why us.

» Watch the Words With Bears pitch presentation at Women 2.0 Startup Weekend 2011.

We’re passionate about our idea because we can see that there’s a huge opportunity to make a new kind of game, a new mode of learning, a new medium through which to absorb language. We believe in the possibilities that the Kinect sensor and related technologies can give us.

Startup Weekend brought us together and made all of this possible, by connecting people, experience, and ideas. Thank you to all the mentors and the organizers for an amazing event!

Our team now represents San Francisco in Global Startup Battle 2011Vote for us by November 28, 2011 @ 11pm PST.

Wave at us on Twitter at @wordswithbears and check out our site!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Judy Tuan is a Community Manager at Eudemonia. At Women 2.0 Startup Weekend in November 2011, she co-founded her startup Words With Bears to build Kinect language learning games that are unBEARably fun. She attended UC Berkeley. Follow her startup on Twitter at @wordswithbears.