What better way to help internet-addicted users learn Spanish than the ultimate internet meme - cats?
That's the question that launched the development of CatAcademy, a new app by online learning company Memrise that uses cat memes to teach users Spanish while they scroll through their mobile phone. The app launches today.
" What we're actually competing for your attention with is Facebook and Instagram, so that if you're sitting on the bus and you pull out your phone and think, 'What am I going to do for 10 minutes on the bus?' the answer has to be learn Spanish, not look at Instagram," Ben Whately, chief operating officer of Memrise, told ABC News today.
"So how can we attract people's attention to our app? The answer is very clearly cats," he said.
Though the idea seems like logical next step for the internet, Whately said that it took Memrise a few years of digging through research and data to arrive at the idea. The company analyzed data from their other online learning software, which involves user-created visual mnemonic devices, and saw that the ones that were the most popular and helped learners the most featured cats.
"Every way we analyzed data, cute pictures were coming out on top, particularly cute pictures of cats. So we thought, 'really? What's going on here?'" Whately said.
The team found research that supported the notion that engaging with something cute enhances memory and learning abilities.
"There was Japanese research that found that cuteness, cute pictures particularly of kittens, increases performance on cognitive tasks. And when you increase humor in learning, when you link a joke in learning, that massively increases your retention. Cats are funny by nature. They're the funniest things around. That's why they're so popular on the internet and why they attract people's attention," he said.
To build the app, Memrise put out a job ad for what Whately called "the job that the internet was waiting for," that of a cat meme creation specialist. They licensed pictures from I Can Haz Cheezburger, the famous cat meme website with whom Memrise shares investors, and they crowdsourced original cat photos from Memrise users.
Memrise's team of developers and designers then partnered with Spanish language teachers to create what are, essentially, funny mobile flashcards.
"It's difficult work, it's grueling," Whately joked.
The app now contains more than 1,000 cat photos meticulously matched to common Spanish phrases in the hopes that users will turn to it for entertainment and learn Spanish as a byproduct.
"The aim to make it as recreational as possible. What we believe is now technology has the power to make learning into a genuine form of entertainment that can compete with other entertainment," he said.
"It is as difficult as looking at pictures of cats. That's the experience we're going for. The user experience should be no different in terms of motivation required as looking at the I Can Haz Cheezburger stream, and by looking at pictures of cats you will learn to speak Spanish," he said.
The app costs 99 cents in the Apple app store. The company hopes to branch out to other languages and Android apps soon, Whately said.