‘Sea Hero Quest’ hides dementia research inside a VR game

On the face of it, Sea Hero Quest could be just another mobile game. Cheerful, colorful and with plenty of bite-sized levels intended to test memory and spatial awareness. But while you’re captaining your little boat along snaking channels towards checkpoints, the game is watching you. It’s scoring your spatial navigation skill, one of the first innate abilities dementia sufferers experience a deterioration in. The data gathered is contributing towards a better understanding of what ‘normal’ looks like — the benchmark for navigation skill across different demographics of people. The organizations behind the game are now back with a VR sequel, and the goal of advancing dementia research even further with their gamified approach.

The data from all the playthroughs of the Sea Hero Quest mobile game is already revealing some interesting preliminary insights. Analysis shows differences in basic spatial navigation skill begins to show at around 19 years of age, suggesting that deterioration can begin earlier than expected, long before other hallmark symptoms of dementia start presenting themselves. Men and women also tend to employ different strategies to solve puzzles — choosing certain routes over others to complete a level, for example — and people from Nordic countries seem to be better than average at the game. These kind of observations are already telling scientists that different demographic and socioeconomic factors produce different results.

Sea Hero Quest VR has been created not only to renew momentum behind the citizen science project, but to also nourish a much richer dataset. The mobile game records changes in orientation as you wind your way through channels with a 22.5-degree buffer, partly because slightly erratic movement might simply be a product of finicky touchscreen controls. When you are guiding the direction of the boat with your eyes, however, control is more natural and so changes in direction are registered every 1.5 degrees. By monitoring much subtler changes in navigation, researchers will have a more detailed picture of how you went about completing a level.

Head-tracking adds another important layer to the dataset, too. While the boat is stationary, you are free to look around. What do you focus on to get your bearings, at what points do you hesitate, and where are you looking when you do? The answers to these kind of questions can help us better understand the cognitive processes behind spatial navigation, and where differences may lie between two runs of the same level even if the route and time taken are the same. For the researchers at University College London, the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK — who created the title with the help of game developer Glitchers and the backing of Deutsche Telekom, which hosts all the data on its servers — VR also allowed them to add a new level type: The Morris water maze.

This experiment is typically conducted with rodents. They are dropped into a small, walled pool with an invisible platform hidden somewhere below the surface. The rodents must swim around until they find this platform, and because of at least one visual identifier on the wall of the pool, they should find the platform faster in subsequent tries. It’s a spatial memory test that wasn’t possible in the mobile game, mainly because the boat moves automatically.

It works perfectly well in VR thanks to a deeper control scheme that lets you drive the boat, though you’re searching for a friendly sea monster in the game, rather than trying not to drown, which is the main motivation for rats hunting out that invisible platform. This, again, generates a whole new dataset for study and cross-referencing against initial results from the mobile game.

There are a few other potential benefits to a virtual reality sequel, the game’s creators tell us. As the whole experience is more immersive and the interface is simpler, it’s hoped that some people that wouldn’t necessarily play the mobile game might give this VR version a try. The intuitive control scheme is also an improvement over the mobile version, meaning researchers needn’t compensate as much in their analyses for players getting used to steering the ship. Launching on what’s still a fledgling medium is also expected to create some additional buzz around the title, helping to meet the goal of collecting data from 10,000 players.

I find the game pretty fun, too. The interface is cartoony and colorful, and the gameplay is in short bursts. The pick up and play nature of the game lends itself well to VR in that respect, since you can take of the headset after two minutes and still have contributed the equivalent of five hours of lab-based research. I particularly liked levels where you navigate down a winding path to a checkpoint and then attempt fire a flare in the direction of your starting point, which is much harder than it sounds (at least for me). I repeated these levels until I completed them, which is interesting data in and of itself. How many times did I replay the level, by how much did I improve each go, and how did I approach the replays differently?

The game features level completion ratings and various other types of achievements that encourage you to keep playing. What I didn’t immediately realize is the premise of the game itself is a nod to one of the sadder outcomes of the progression of dementia. You take on the role of a sailor’s son whose father is losing his memory. As you explore the various levels, you are effectively reliving entries in his journal, helping him remember the past.

If you want, you can just… play Sea Hero Quest VR, which is available now, for free, for Gear VR and Oculus Rift headsets. Like the mobile game, the VR title asks that you answer questions about your age, sex, location, and others such as how you would rate your orientation skills. You can opt-out of sharing any data, if you like, but the more information you provide, the more valuable your contribution.

Virtual reality is being well received by the medical community. VR experiences show potential in the treatment of anxiety, stress and depression, while others can raise awareness of disabilities or help us cope with the fear of death. Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments for dementia and associated conditions like Alzheimer’s disease just yet, though research continues.

The citizen science project that is Sea Hero Quest VR could be invaluable, regardless. Nearly 3 million people have downloaded the mobile game, generating what’s said to be the equivalent of more than 12,000 years of lab-based research. The VR sequel will build on this, generating more complex and accurate data, which in turn will allow us to look more deeply at differences in spatial memory across age groups, between sexes, and where varying environmental factors are at play.

In the shorter-term, how spatial navigation deteriorates may help us arrange environments that are better suited to dementia sufferers. Once we know what normal (and abnormal) results looks like, we can improve diagnosis and run better-informed, placebo-controlled studies of possible medications. On that point Deutsche Telekom’s Wolfgang Kampbartold told us: “To be able to do something in the future, the first thing you have to have is a benchmark. Because if you don’t know what normal is, you don’t know whether you are developing a disease. Like with many other diseases, the earlier you detect something, the more likely a positive outcome.”

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