While some may be familiar with the concept–made famous by Foldit, a pioneer online video puzzle where you “fold” protein as part of a University of Washington research project–the crowd at Bibliotheca Alexandria were blown away by a similar game model: Eyewire, neurology’s first ever computation game, open to laypeople.
“It’s fantastic because it builds a sense of community and makes science accessible,” project co-founder Amy Robinson, Creative Director of the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told the audience at this year’s Biovision conference during one of its seminars at Alexandria’s foremost knowledge hub.
Eyewire is a “cell mapping” game launched by MIT’s Seung Lab, where players reconstruct and map interconnected neurons in the retina–setting a precedent for neurologists everywhere, not just in using crowd-sourcing for research purposes, but in thinking outside of the proverbial box to get more work done in less time (and in this case, while entertaining the public).
The lab is working to generate translations of the application in other languages, including Arabic–which would make Eyewire the first game of this genre to be translated into Arabic.
According to recent estimates, there are 1.6 billion internet users worldwide who play games, across several portals, 38 per cent of which are in the Arab World. It would be interesting to see how such a large segment would respond to the prospect of Arabic-speaking citizen science gaming, if at all.
The prototype for the game application is based on–and is visually similar to–the real-life version of the lab software that MIT researchers use. The original software allows the scientists to “semi-automatically analyze neuro-image data, to see which cell is connected to which cell and this is important, because it allows us to understand how these circuits function,” Robinson explains in a chat with Nature Middle East.
“Even with the best software that currently exists it takes us 50 hours to map one neuron,” she says.
Currently, there are 120,000 players on Eyewire, which was officially launched in December 2012. It’s a relatively small but very active community, that spends a total of 1,200 hours per day tracing neurocircuits, starting with retinal neurons.
The game uses data from Max Plank Institute for Medical Research, but soon enough Seung Lab will be feeding in their own data as well.
“Essentially, gamers are helping labs make discoveries in science,” says Robinson. You don’t have to be a scientist, or to have studied science, to help MIT map a tangle of neurons, identify new cells or (literally) connect the dots in areas that the gaming app’s AI had missed. And unlike other viral video games, like CandyCrush, or Diamond Dash, one can solidly argue that this, along with others like Zooniverse or Foldit, serves a higher purpose.
“It’s a good example of citizen science,” Robinson says.
During the conference, one participant was concerned that as a field, science can be highly-exclusive, conservative and separated from popular audience, so naturally old hands might have a difficult time taking such citizen science ventures seriously. In response, MIT’s young and passionate creative director acknowledged that they were initially received with a degree of skepticism.
“But a lot of effort has gone into improving the effectiveness. improving accuracy and efficiency [of the application, and in turn the results],” explains Robinson. “And this is key to making citizen science work.”
This writer signed up for the game to get a glimpse of how it works–and all one needs to get started is a Facebook profile or an email address, and it’s on. Once you begin, you’re assigned a slice of the retina and you’re asked to start exploring a mystery cell, reconstructed in 3D on your screen–in what might be the most beautiful game imagery I have yet seen. Then again, neural structures are a work of art, and Eyewire gives non-scientists like myself a chance to appreciate their intricacies.
You’re requested to treat the cell’s 3D model as a coloring book; and along with the AI, you color the neurons, eventually forming a labyrinth that lab researchers, and now top players, inspect for accuracy. If you’re new, you have to build game credit before you can effectively “trailblaze a cube” or a section of the retina.
The game is highly interactive; you can chat with other players, pitch ideas for improving the application, or even pose any question related to this specific branch of science. According to Robinson, they polled players, and many said that the game had inspired them to go out and read more on how the brain works.
Like Angry Birds or World of Warcraft, or any other viral or cult gaming portal, you keep scores, collect accolades as you level up, compete against other gamers, participate in gaming marathons (EyeWire held a gaming Olympics once, says Robinson, and sometimes they tailor “challenges” based on gamers’ requests), go on “cell hunts,” rise up the ranks to become a “grim reaper” (with the power to sever faulty cell branches or “mergers”) and even name neuron branches after yourself. And, hold the phone, these names go into the papers that the lab produces.
MIT’s Seung lab does have big plans for the evolution of the gameplay too. Besides improving the technology, the lab will introduce an alternative “action” version in a Science Fiction and Fantasy setting– with alternate universes, alien technology, warring factions, weapons and the whole shebang. It’s part of an effort to build a bigger, stronger (and fun) community for this gaming app. “Community is key if you want to inspire people to work together to build something,” says Robinson.
In my books, it’s another win for the nerds.