Sea Hero Quest Brings its Dementia Research Into Virtual Reality

Sea Hero Quest made a splash last year when it launched with the stated goal of gathering data for dementia research from players. They hopes to crowdsource data and set benchmarks for human spatial navigation using in-game navigation. Since visual–spatial impairments can be one of the first signs of dementia, those benchmarks have the potential to lead to finding new ways to diagnose dementia in its early stages.

Since then, it’s been quite a success. Over three million players have joined in the research effort, playing the game for a combined 80 years of total played time. According to its creators, two minutes with Sea Hero Quest generates as much data as can be gained from five hours of traditional research — giving them over 12,000 years of data so far. They’ve already drawn some interesting conclusions from that data, including that our spatial navigation capabilities begin to decline when we’re as young as 19.

Now, to bring even more players into the pool and expand the data they can collect, the Sea Hero Quest team has brought the game to VR.

According to Michael Hornberger, Professor of Applied Dementia Research at the University of East Anglia, VR gives the team far more information.

“In a clinical environment, VR allows an even more immersive and intuitive diagnostic assessment of navigation ability in people who may potentially develop dementia. Sea Hero Quest VR allows us to measure more intuitively when people are not sure of their bearings, for example by stopping and looking around. VR therefore has the potential to capture additional complementary data to Sea Hero Quest mobile.”

Engadget recently covered some of those advancements in more detail:

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.

 
Here’s a demo of the early minutes of Sea Hero Quest VR, shared by Alzheimer’s Research UK:

If you’d like to participate in the research, Sea Hero Quest VR is free for Gear VR. You can also download the original game for free on iOS and Android.