Sea Hero Quest is the game, which could help scientists uncover some of the mysteries behind this disease. According to the world dementia report, someone in the world develops dementia every three seconds. In 2015, there were an estimated 46.8 million people living with dementia, worldwide and that was expected to increase to nearly 50 million in 2017. With experts expecting this number to double every 20 years and developing countries leading the growth, dementia is a serious health concern.
The game was developed by a partnership between Alzheimer’s Research UK and Deutsche Telekom, along with scientists from University College London and University of East Anglia. Available on mobile and Occulus VR, Sea Hero Quest aims to gather data on navigation, which apparently begins to decline after the age of 20.
Losing your way is one of the first signs of dementia and the game is designed to help researchers understand the mental processes behind 3D navigation. Sea Hero Quest is free and this time last year it had been downloaded nearly 3 million times, giving scientists access to a much larger pool of data than they could gather in standard laboratory studies.
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, presented some of the data at a conference, but stressed that initial results are only the beginning. She said, “While Sea Hero Quest is targeted towards the general population, it’s promising to see the game already being taken into a clinical setting to measure spatial navigation changes in people with dementia.
“Big data has the potential to address some of the most fundamental questions that remain in science and this project is a great example of how millions of people can contribute to research from the comfort of their own sofas.”
Sea Hero Quest is a two minute game, which on its own can’t tell researchers much, but the sheer scale of data gathered could help scientists diagnose dementia early. It’s all about gathering enough data to find out what ‘normal’ 3D navigation skills look like and from there the benchmark can be set. With a benchmark, medical professionals will be able to identify people who are losing their way more than is normal.
The game features the story of a fisherman and his grandson. They are in a boat together and the player has to navigate to find the grandfather’s lost memories. The charming art style and colourful graphics could belong to any mobile game.
Levels feature navigation challenges, such as memorising a map and then remembering your way around the coves and islands on a rugged coastline. In another level you have to reach a destination and then fire a flare to land at your start point, which requires remembering all the twists and turns of the channel you’ve just navigated. It’s a clever test, which could leave some worried about their ability to find their way home after a trip to the corner shop.
The Sea Hero Quest website says, “Playing the game for just a few minutes will provide this completely anonymous data to help improve our understanding of navigational cognition. We’ll create a benchmark to help determine what goes wrong in the brain for people with dementia.”