To make real change takes a lot of imagination and, more often than not, a little bit of courage to do things differently.

It’s probably fair to say that the worlds of research, gaming and technology are not the most natural of bedfellows. Yet the recent collaboration between academics from University College London, University of East Anglia, Bournemouth University and University of Northumbria, on behalf of leading telecommunication company Deutsche Telekom, Alzheimer’s Research UK and game developers, Glitchers, has led to the generation of unprecedented levels of human navigational data, via ‘Sea Hero Quest’, a new multiplatform mobile game app, to tackle dementia.

Dementia disrupts the formation of new memories, often leaving those affected isolated and disorientated. For many people living with dementia, one of the first effects they experience is a loss of spatial awareness, as they lose the ability to navigate their way through even well known places and environments.

‘Sea Hero Quest’ follows a son’s quest to capture the lost memories of his father and has been specifically designed to track and help advance our understanding of spatial navigation and how this aspect of our brain works.

This project provides an unprecedented chance to study how many thousands of people from different countries and cultures navigate space. Until now, the largest spatial navigation study comprised less than 600 volunteers.

Testing 250 people would typically take one year for most traditional research labs in this area. In Sea Hero Quest, in just over 48 hours, we tested 250,000 people, generating more than 650 days worth game continuous data. We estimate this would take over 250 years to achieve this with traditional lab based research.

Generating a data set of this nature and on this scale, at this pace, is precisely what is needed to bring us closer to unlocking the next breakthrough in dementia research – this will help shed light on how we use our brain to navigate and aid in future work on diagnostics and drug treatment programmes in dementia research.

The real strength of this project has been the collaborative approach, capitalising on all parties’ individual areas of expertise which have all been interdependent and instrumental – if the scientists alone had built Sea Hero Quest, it wouldn’t have been as fun and if the games designers had built it, it wouldn’t have had the necessary credibility – nor scientific return and, finally, without the support of Deutsche Telekom, we would never have been able to reach the scale that makes this project so important.

The team aimed to secure 100,000 downloads within six months of becoming available, a target which would see more than 50 years worth of data generated, however enthusiasm for the game has been so great that this target was surpassed within 24 hours of launch.

This phenomenal response just goes to show how much can be achieved with brave and diverse collaborations. Together, we have created something really special, the impact of which could be truly game changing.

Dr Hugo Spiers, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University College London

Prof. Michael Hornberger, Professor of Dementia Research, Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia

Prof Ruth Conroy Dalton, Professor of Building Usability and Visualisation, University of Northumbria

Dr. Jan M. Wiener, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology / BUDI (Dementia Institute)
Bournemouth University