Researchers use virtual reality to help develop dementia test

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A still from the Sea Hero Quest game.
A still from the Sea Hero Quest game.

Scientists are asking the players of virtual reality games to play a free game, Sea Hero Quest, to help them better understand dementia, with the goal of developing a diagnostic test.

The game — developed through a collaboration between Deutsche Telekom, University College London, the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer's Research UK — tests navigation skills, the loss of which marks one of the first symptoms of dementia. The game itself was developed jointly with independent game designers, Glitchers.

“Of course, many researchers are already using VR based experiments within a lab-based setting,” Maxwell Scott-Slade, creative director at Glitchers, said in a statement. “This is the first time, however, that experiments have been gamified and designed for the mass-market consumer, allowing users to share scientifically valid data via the medium of engaging gameplay and extending their potential reach exponentially.”

Just two minutes spent playing Sea Hero Quest VR collects the equivalent of five hours of lab-based research, according to the companies. Data on almost 3 million players were collected via a mobile version of the game that was launched in 2016. Those players generated the equivalent of more than 12,000 years of lab-based research, enough data to help create the world's first benchmark for human spatial navigation. Researchers were able to prove that spacial navigation capabilities begin to decline at age 19 and that fundamental differences exist in spacial navigation strategies in men and women.

The new version of the game will build on existing data by measuring subtle human behavioral reactions with much greater precision, according to Hugo Spiers, Ph.D., of University College London.

“The intuitive nature of VR means that the study can be opened up to those who might not be able to grasp the function of the mobile game — some people with advanced dementia, for example,” he said.

The anonymous spatial navigation data are stored on a secure server in Germany, according to the companies.

Sea Quest Hero VR is compatible with the Samsung Gear VR headset and as of Aug. 29 is available to download from the Oculus Store at no charge. The mobile version of the game is still available to download for free via the App Store and Google Play.

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