Mobile game helps researchers better understand getting lost because of dementia

By Aditi Pai

Deutsche Telekom has launched a mobile game, called Sea Hero Quest, designed to help researchers improve their understanding of spacial navigation. The app was built in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK, a charity, University College London, the University of East Anglia, and game developers Glitchers.

A loss of spacial navigation is one of the first symptoms of dementia, but according to Deutsche Telekom, researchers are unable to differentiate when people are getting lost because it’s an early symptom of the disease, or they are getting lost as a result of natural aging. The app developers aim to use this game to create a benchmark for spacial navigation.

“We knew that there must be a way of empowering everyone to share their time to help to move us one step closer to a breakthrough in the field of dementia,” Deutsche Telekom Chief Brand Officer Hans-Christian Schwingen said in a statement. “At the same time, we realized that if we wanted to achieve real scale and truly make a difference, we needed to make it fun for everyone involved. We needed to create something that would get people gaming for good."

The Sea Hero Quest game, which is available for iOS and Android devices, guides users through mazes, including arctic rivers, golden shores, and mystic marshes. Users collect their memories in a journal, chase magical creatures, and collect starfish that they can trade in for equipment improvements. 

Two minutes of gameplay, Deutsche Telekom said, represent 5 hours of conventional research. Additionally, if 100,000 people play the game for 2 minutes, researchers can generate the equivalent of more than 50 years of this lab-based research. All of the data that the game collect will be anonymized and stored within the T-Systems data center in Germany.

“The data set that Deutsche Telekom’s Sea Hero Quest generates is truly unprecedented, until now these kind of investigations took years to coordinate and at best gave us a snap shot of how a very small sample of volunteers behaved,” Alzheimer’s Research UK Chief Executive Hilary Evans said in a statement. “The largest spatial navigation study to date comprised less than 600 volunteers. Providing the research community with access to an open source data set of this nature, at this scale, in such a short period of time is exactly the kind of innovation required to unlock the next breakthrough in dementia research.”

Earlier this year, Boston, Massachusetts-based Akili Interactive Labs, which has developed a video game intervention for cognitive conditions, raised $30.5 million. Akili’s offering, a video game called Project: Evo, is based on research from UCSF. One of the conditions Akili’s game is designed to treat is Alzheimer’s, which is the most common cause of dementia.