Sea Hero Quest, first developed to learn more about brain development through mobile gaming, is setting sail for an ambitious new project: Sea Hero Quest VR.  I was invited along opportunity to try out the game for myself, and ask a few questions of those at the heart of the project.  

My first impression was that everyone involved was excited.  They were all adamant that this is a unique project.  Deutsche Telekom and its subsidiary T-Mobile, ran us through the impressive achievements of the game in its mobile form (with almost 3 million downloads in the last year), and their excitement for the game’s potential seems justifiable.  There has not yet been anything in VR development as innovative and collaborative as Sea Hero Quest VR.  

What marks the project out as particularly unusual has to be the collaborative nature of its development.  I spoke with a member of the panel whose academic background was informed by architecture, specifically ‘space syntax’ in cities and various types of buildings.  The collaboration makes use of Samsung’s Gear headsets; those I spoke with considered the project to be the beginning of a trend in VR technology with regards to cross-disciplinary collaboration. They seemed proud to be leading the way, particularly as they are gearing their game – and by extension, their research – towards dementia research, an undoubtedly worthy cause.

The involvement of scientists from University of East Anglia, University College London, and academic bodies abroad, brought to the development of the game aspects which the game designers I spoke to had not previously had to consider when working on a game.  They saw it as both a limitation to their usual methods, and a welcome challenge.  

Conversely, those involved from the scientific, academic end seemed forward thinking, and hugely excited by the potential database that could be built from the already vast information set gleaned from the mobile game.  There were perhaps clashes evident among the wide variety of developers, but they were all conscious that their goal, an interactive game which aims to aid the treatment and identification of degenerative neurological diseases like dementia, was worth compromising for.  

Compromises made in game play were evident once I had played the game.  Aspects such as the movement of the water, or particular scenic aspects, seemed intuitive to the designers to make as realistic as possible.  But to the scientists, they would have detracted from the sort of thought processes and patterns they were going to be measuring in users.  Certainly, playing the game, it was evident that it wasn’t designed solely with aesthetics in mind.  Playability was not compromised on – in fact, the way the game is played is very intuitive, as a means of ensuring older and less experienced participants can still add their data to the experiment.  The pathway required of the player is much more directed – but then, that is more or less the point of the game.  It is a finite, self-contained opportunity to discover how you find your way through the world, with optional questions about oneself and lifestyle intended to make the (totally anonymised) data more intricate and thus more useful to the scientists at the other end of the game.  

The potential for social outreach was something I pressed the panel members on. VR strikes me as an unusual platform to have chosen, given the goal is to gather data on as wide a cross section of society as possible, and particularly considering the goal of aiding the elderly (who are, after all, most likely to experience diseases such as dementia).  My doubts were somewhat waylaid by talking to panel members from the design, academic, and Deutsche Telekom sides of Sea Hero Quest VR.

All were conscious that their approaches were somewhat different to their colleagues’ but all strongly assured me that accessibility and outreach were non-issues.  Pre-existing outreach, particularly in hospitals and elderly care homes, has been taking place in the lead up to the game’s release, and the projection of VR’s broadening usage is a strong but not the only component of how the team hopes to reach as many players as possible.  They have demonstrated the research is being taken to its subjects: the game’s team is not simply waiting for users to fall into their lap, as they were able to do, to a degree, with the mobile game. Part of the intention behind using VR for this extension of the mobile game is that most VR headsets are used by multiple people in the household, workplace, or wherever they are used.  Each user profile in the game collects an independent data set.

The cross-section of disciplines involved in the project is quite unusual.  I spoke with a member of the panel whose academic background is informed by architecture, particularly ‘space syntax’.  The collaboration was funded by Deusche Telekom, and makesuse of Samsung’s Gear headsets.  Those I spoke with considered the project to be the beginning of a trend in VR technology, with regards to cross-disciplinary collaboration, and they seemed proud to be leading the way, particularly when they are gearing their research towards dementia research, undoubtedly a worthy cause.

Sea Hero Quest is available here.

Ali Flanagan