Editor’s note: Kevin Raposo is a tech blogger who writes for KnowTechie, which he launched. When he’s not catching up on all the latest startups budding out of the Boston tech scene, he’s holding his post down as a media relations manager at EZPR.
Thanks to a little startup sprouting up from Boston, I was able to map out a small section of a neuron through EyeWire, a company that’s gamifying its neuroscience research in order to enlist the help of people from all over the world.
To understand how the brain works, scientists need to figure out how electrical impulses travel through its vast network of 85 billion neurons, connected through 100 trillion synapses. And to do this, they need to map the structure and connections of all these neurons. Enter EyeWire, a company that’s crowdsourcing this mapping process with a fun and addictive online game.
“I think that exploring the brain is the greatest adventure of all time. It seemed natural to invite the world to join the quest,” says EyeWire’s founder, Sebastian Seung.
The game essentially works like a 3D puzzle. Players are tasked with the challenge of mapping the structure and connections of neurons by isolating individual cells from large three-dimensional microscopic image datasets. Think of it like a coloring book.
Remember how as a kid you were always taught to color within the lines? This is pretty much the same, but instead, players are tasked with the assignment of mapping out neurons from one side of a cube to the other, by scrolling up and down through the cube and rebuilding neurons in segments.
These cubes are the width of an average human hair (about 4.5 microns per side, technically speaking). Once players successfully fill in all the blanks, a visual 3D shape of the cell they just mapped is displayed.
If it sounds complex, it isn’t; it’s designed so anyone can play. EyeWire’s executive director, Amy Robinson, tells me its users are ”high school students, grandmothers, tugboat drivers, animators, everything. It’s amazing because hardly any of them have any neuroscience background, but yet they’re helping to make discoveries on how the brain works.”
To remind users that they are indeed playing a game, EyeWire provides a typical gaming experience. It features an elaborate profile system, achievement badges, special icons, a chat feature that allows you to interact with other players, and the capacity to unlock additional privileges as you level up through the game. It’s no surprise that the game currently has about 180,000 users. “The top players are actually online for 30, 40, 50 hours a week,” Robinson adds.
EyeWire is already looking ahead when it comes to integrating improvements into the gaming experience. Robinson notes, “we’re working now to create a lot of interesting visuals, educational material, all sets built around a mobile game, and think about how future games will basically become more gamified and more fun.”
To step their game up to the next level, EyeWire sought the help of Indicated, a company that develops interactive 3D software and media with a medical focus, to develop an Oculus Rift version of the game. EyeWire debuted the Oculus DK2 version of the game at the NIH Science in 3D conference in January.
Developing the VR version of the game wasn’t easy, Indicated co-founder Matthew Irwin notes.
“To produce the Oculus experience, EyeWire sent us about 650GB of the research data generated by their users. Individual neurons were identified and encoded in this data, and we used that information to generate the surface models that you see and experience. In this way, the neurons that you see around you in virtual space were not modeled by an artist, but correlate directly with the structures in the original source data.”
I was lucky enough to visit EyeWire’s office – which is based out of a WeWork space in Boston – to try the game for myself. I was blown away. As soon as I strapped myself into “the rift,” I was immersed in an environment that was filled with highways of neurons sprawled out in every direction. It was intense.
The VR experience incorporates a natural gaze-based navigation method (which lets a user fly toward a particular area simply by looking where they want to go). To add an educational element, Indicated embedded a few trigger points in the environment that show additional content such as educational videos, which appear as virtual billboards hovering in front of the user. This was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had with the Oculus Rift.
The game was just recently launched on the Oculus download page, which can be found here.
To make things more interesting, EyeWire recently released an API in the hopes of transforming the game to a platform.
“First, we created the game. Now we’re inviting game developers – really any developer – to build their own games to map the brain. New mechanics, creative interfaces…things we never thought of. Hopefully they will build games that are even more fun than EyeWire,” Robinson adds.
The API consists of a sample app and an HTTP API used for assigning players cubes and allowing them to submit them to a social computing server. A sample app can be found here. It consists of a bare-bones web app that can be used as the nucleus of new game designs or alternative applications.
The HTTP API allows third parties to retrieve cubes and submit player neuron traces. One of the developers who helped write the API, William Silversmith, tells me, “In time, we hope to develop an ecosystem of various game designs, and we will integrate the solutions they submit into the neural consensus weighted with the appropriate level of confidence we will acquire from continuously measuring submissions as compared to others and compared to our QA process.”
Although EyeWire is continuously making revolutionary strides in the gamification of scientific research, it’s certainly not the only one doing it.
Foldit, a research project out of the University of Washington Center for Game Science in collaboration with the UW Department of Biochemistry, is a 3D puzzle game that challenges users to fold proteins into the best possible molecular structure. Players are judged on criteria, including size and whether hydrophobic chains are surrounded by as many atoms as possible. The game was launched in 2008 and has been played by approximately 400,000 people.
In Planet Four, players are assigned the task of identifying and measuring features on the surface of the southern polar region of Mars. If space exploration isn’t your thing, TomNod brings it closer to home. Instead of scouring the surface of Mars, TomNod users crowdsource observations about the Earth’s surface. When Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing, TomNod directed its users to help search for the missing aircraft. In fact, the site couldn’t keep up with the traffic due to an influx of users looking to help.
“Through games, though building better computer vision AI and thus automating big neurodata analysis – our collective, collaborative, even gamified competitive brainpower will be the key to figuring [complex problems] out,” Robinson concludes.