Dementia is difficult to spot early. Researchers think VR can help.

In 2014, German mobile carrier Deutsche Telekom initiated a search for something it could do to benefit the world.

Employees met with experts in health, education, and cybersecurity, seeking out something that, according to Hans-Christian Schwingen, chief brand officer at Deutsche Telekom, would show “how mobile products and services have the power to transform people’s lives for the better.” When Michael Hornberger, professor of applied dementia research at the University of East Anglia, suggested using mobile technology to develop a diagnostic tool for dementia, Deutsche Telekom knew they found their project. “The great thing about dementia is it really fits our brand as well because here we are dealing with people who might lose their memories in future times and can’t be part of the information society any longer,” says Schwingen. “It is in our own business interest that people maintain their brain capacities.”

Last Tuesday (Aug. 29), in a collaboration with Hornberger and his colleague Hugo Spiers from the University College of London, the dementia research charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, and the London-based game design firm Glitchers, Deutsche Telekom launched a free virtual reality game called “Sea Hero Quest” that will collect anonymized data during gameplay to lay the foundation for understanding dementia and create a tool for its diagnosis.

Screenshot from the game Sea Hero Quest VR.
The game is modeled after the Morris Water Maze, an experiment designed to assess navigational ability. (Deutsche Telekom)

The game, which primarily entails maneuvering a boat through the sea, is modeled off the Morris Water Maze, a neuropsychological test typically used in rodent research to assesses navigational ability. Deterioration of spatial awareness is one of the earliest symptoms of dementia, but there currently exist no good tests for its evaluation in humans, explains Spiers, who’s spent 20 years studying spatial navigation with virtual reality. “If you’re testing someone in Manhattan or in the Himalayas, you’re going to have very different environments in which to test someone’s disorientation,” he says. “It’s very hard to create a universal test, and really the only valid way to do that is to use virtual reality.”

The game’s standardized test environment, combined with the ease with which it can be widely circulated, will allow researchers to assess the baseline distribution of the general population’s navigation skills with far more data than could be gathered in a lab. Once a baseline is established, it will be possible to use the same game to diagnose patients with dementia before the onset of more serious symptoms.

The user performs different tasks that help researchers collect the necessary data for diagnosing dementia in the future. (Deutsche Telekom)

The launch of the VR game, which is compatible with Samsung Gear, follows the success of the game’s mobile app version, which was released in November 2016 and has since been downloaded nearly 3 million times. The collaborators chose to release a mobile version first to test their idea, says Schwingen, without expecting the game to become so popular. The VR version now “takes the game to the next level,” says Spiers. Because the gestures used to navigate the virtual world closely mirror the gestures of the real world, the game has the potential to perform even more accurate assessments of navigational skill.

The downside of the VR version is that only 5 million people own Samsung Gear headsets. That limits the amount of data that can be gathered, and also opens up the possibly that the data will be skewed: the types of people who would own a Samsung Gear headset and play the game in VR aren’t necessarily representative of the general population.

But the researchers have taken several measures to counter these pitfalls. For example, the team has factored in video game skill level: “The game has been very carefully designed so it tests in the first level how good you are at video games,” Spiers says. The game also allows users to create multiple profiles on one headset and encourages players to share the experience with their families for further data collection. Finally, to reach more people, the researchers plan to bring headsets with the game to public events and set up demos at Deutsche Telekom stores.

Dementia currently affects 47 million people around the world, a number projected to grow to 130 million by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Research. That number doesn’t count the patients’ family and community members who are impacted as well, Schwingen adds. It will likely be several years before the data collected by Sea Hero Quest leads to “a real tool that doctors can use” for diagnosing dementia, says Spiers. “But we’re not decades away.”

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