A VR Game is Part of the World’s Biggest Dementia Research Experiment

Wednesday 30th August 2017

When people think of video games or virtual reality, one thing that may not come to mind is “vital research”. However VR has a new meaning as UK development company Glitchers have just released a free to play game that could help scientists fight dementia.

Sea Hero Quest VR, the follow up to the 2016 game for mobile phones, tackles one of the first things to diminish after the age of 19, and one of the first tell-tale signs of dementia: navigation. The main aim of Sea Hero Quest was to create a wide-ranging benchmark of navigation ability, with the gameplay being linked to research techniques and allowing scientists to see at a glance how people on a widespread level use their navigation ability, with other challenges of reflexes and memory.

The efficacy of the game is such that the designers and researchers claim that two minutes of play time in the game generates as much data as a five hour in person session. The VR version captures, according to the developers, 15 times as much data as the mobile game, because it allows for the capture of head tracking information separate from the headset.

The widespread data generated, as of today totalling the equivalent of 12,000 years’ worth of dementia research, has led to some interesting results already. The first is that from 19 onwards people’s spatial navigation abilities already begin to diminish. Along with this, there is the discovery that men and women navigate differently and that for reasons that have not been ascertained yet, Nordic countries fare particularly well at the navigation exercises.

The creation of a more universal benchmark, achieved through machine learning is part of a wider mission to ascertain a greater understanding of dementia: how dementia begins, how far it has progressed when more visible symptoms are seen and what can be done to mitigate its effects for as long as possible, as currently there is no medical treatment that can prevent or slow dementia. For treatment to be effective in the future, it is clear that doctors will need to diagnose patients long before evident symptoms appear.

And what of the role of video games and virtual reality in research? The data collection of players is transparent and ethical, allowing for a complete opt out of navigational information as well as opt in for disclosing certain information relating to age, handedness, education level and the like. Could the future of research be in large scale free game form? Other research tools have taken the form of video games or used 3D interactive media in some way, but not to the scale of Sea Hero Quest.

Whilst the number of people using the VR version will be significantly smaller, owing to the fact that not only is VR a relatively niche platform but also currently it is only available on a single VR Platform (Samsung’s Gear VR), limiting the amount of potential users, but the ability to get the level of data it can in such a short space of time means that potential research could end up becoming mass entertainment.