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How VR Can Help Solve Dementia

How VR is helping us spot, research, treat, and raise awareness for dementia.

Anyone who has suffered from dementia, or knows someone who has, knows that is a cruel, tough syndrome to battle. 5.5 million people in the United States alone suffer from dementia, which is marked by chronic degeneration of cognitive functions such as memory, decision-making skills, behavior towards others, and language abilities. Researchers have been struggling to find a cure or treatment for decades, and with the number of Alzheimer’s-related deaths nearly doubling from 2000 to 2014, the need for a treatment is greater now than ever. 

One group of researchers hope that a highly addictive virtual reality game in which users sail through sunny, tropical waters and navigate through turbulent, stormy seas will provide the data needed to step forward in the search for treatment.   

Developed by Alzheimer’s Research UK in partnership with Deutsche Telekom, the University College London (UCL), and the University of East Anglia (UEA), Sea Hero Quest VR is being used to collect widespread data about human spatial navigation that will be used in the future to help detect dementia in earlier stages by cross-examining navigation data from healthy players and players with dementia to determine the subtle, early onset navigational troubles in people with dementia that are currently unknown.

While the concept sounds almost too good to be to be true, UEA researcher Michael Hornberger, Ph.D., has been toying with the idea since 2014, when he attended a gamification of science conference that made him think seriously about using gaming for data collection.

I realized that navigation is intuitively a part of many online games and could be therefore used to measure navigation behavior on a population level,” Hornberger said. “This would create then a navigation benchmark which could be used for the diagnosis of our patients.”

Since its inception, Sea Hero Quest has reached a massive audience. The original mobile app was downloaded over three million times, and the VR version, which launched just last week, already has over 40,000 downloads. The mobile version gave researchers an unprecedented amount of navigational data in record-breaking time; two minutes of active game play equaled out to five hours of lab-based research. In other words, it would take researchers 9,000 years using traditional laboratory methods to gather the amount of data gathered so far with Sea Hero Quest. However, the VR version was developed to improve upon the mobile app by creating a more intuitive and immersive navigation experience.

“[VR] allows us to detect even more subtle navigation changes before people develop dementia,” said Hornberger. “For example, if they just have a quick look around when they are not sure any more about their bearings.”

The research team has already begun analyzing the data for insights, and clinical trials, led by Hornberger, in which dementia patients themselves play the game, are already underway. Though the Sea Quest VR project is still in the early stages of its two-year design plan, Hornberger suspects that VR will play multiple roles in dementia spotting, research, and eventually, treatment, over the next ten to twenty years.

“I think VR can be easily used for diagnostics and rehabilitation in the future,” Hornberger said. “It is so intuitive that it will allow testing potential patients much better in an ecological way to detect their real-life problems. Similarly, it will allow testing how potential treatments work in patients. Finally, once we have drugs to at least stop the disease, it will be great for rehabilitation purposes so that patients can re-learn ecological tasks such as navigation.”

While researchers like Hornberger are using VR to collect data that will provide critical clues towards treating dementia in the future, others are using VR right now to generate awareness around the reality of living with dementia —and provide relief and happy experiences for those living with the condition.

Alzheimer’s Research UK, the same charity involved with the creation of Sea Hero Quest, teamed up with Google, VISYON, and UCL, to create “A Walk Through Dementia,” a VR film that shows some of the lesser-known realities, experiences, and feelings that people living with dementia face on a daily basis.

We wanted the app to challenge the view that dementia is just about memory loss,” said Dr. Laura Phipps, Alzheimer’s UK Head of Communications and Engagement. “So across all three scenarios you experience a range of symptoms including visual symptoms, misperceptions, getting lost, misrecognizing people, and visuospatial and memory problems.”

The team went to great lengths to make the VR experience as realistic as possible; before production or story development began, anecdotes written by people with dementia were collected and analyzed from online forums and books. A focus group of dementia patients provided input, aiding the team in their mission to create the most realistic experience possible. However, it was quickly realized that there is no “one size fits all” approach to how people experience dementia, and the team tried to portray that in the VR film.

“It’s not always possible to know exactly how someone with dementia is experiencing the world and each person may experience symptoms differently,” Phipps said. “For some symptoms, such as the sense of panic experienced when realizing you’re lost, we’ve used the effects to create a ‘feeling’ rather than model exactly what someone might see.”

With free consulting from Google, narration provided by Dame Harriet Walker (who lost both parents to dementia), promotion from news reader Jon Snow, and help from VISYON in creating the immersive experience, “A Walk Through Dementia” was a truly collaborative effort.

“It was driven largely by goodwill and a desire from all parties to deliver something completely different and game-changing in this space,” Phipps said.

The Wayback,” a VR film designed to reignite happy memories for people with dementia, was created in a similar collaborative effort. Created by Grey London executives Dan Cole and Andy Barnett as a passion project, “The Wayback” was born after Cole was impressed by the high quality visuals of the VR experience Catatonic.

That got us thinking about whether we could use VR to help recall memories that are fading, and whether that would be of any value to those living with Dementia and their loved ones,” said Cole, whose father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “From personal experience, we all felt that one of the toughest things about Alzheimer’s is how hard conversations are to come by as the disease takes hold. You find yourself clutching for old videos and music from the past to ignite a spark in the person. So the aim was to create something that would help spark conversations between people and their loved ones.” 

For now, only the pilot episode has been shot in a planned series of freely accessible VR films designed to transport dementia patients back to popular, iconic moments from different eras. The pilot, which transports people straight into the lively streets on Coronation day, was made possible by a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised €35,000 in a month, and with the pro bono work of artists, editors, sound engineers, producers, and extras who were passionate about the project’s mission.

Cole noted that The Wayback simply wouldn’t have been possible without “the incredible goodwill of everyone to make this happen.” The team just wrapped production on the pilot episode and hopes to release it within the next few weeks.

From widespread spatial navigation collection data to transporting dementia patients to vivid memories from their past, VR is taking on a significant role in the ongoing fight against dementia. You can join the fight, too, by contributing data to researchers by playing Sea Hero Quest, and by supporting projects created with the purpose of educating, creating awareness, and providing joy to those battling dementia.

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