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Interview series: Dr. Rick Adams about The Great Brain Experiment

In light of the Brain Awareness Week – a global campaign to increase public awareness of brain research – earlier this year in March, scientists from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging launched a free mobile app as part of Wonder: Art and science on the brain. The game, called The Great Brain Experiment, enables people to participate in research experiments that previously could only be conducted in the lab.

The researchers from this London based research center study the functions of the brain. The four games that people can play explore a different facet of the brain: “How good is your memory?”, “How impulsive are you?”, “What makes you happy?” and “How much can you see?” Currently, around 150.000 people have participated and the app is still being downloaded.

Next to offering a nice and entertaining player experience, the app also reports data on the players’ performance back to the scientists who will be able to use it to learn about how brain function varies in the population and also how it changes as we age. Participants can see how they performed in the different games compared to other players.

We caught up with the principal investigator and one of the developers Dr. Rick Adams to talk about the reasons for developing the app and its success.

Dr. Adams told us the main aim was to ‘gamify’ the experience for a participant, and so making it attractive for the general public to join in. The format of an app was considered ideal since many people now have a smart phone and would probably not mind playing a game in their spare time. Additionally, the user can play the game from anywhere at their own convenience.

Concerning the challenges of translating a scientific experiment into an app, Dr. Adams explained the most important factor for them was to balance the requirements of the experiment with the game’s entertainment value. This is why the look and feel of the game as well as the gameplay were very important in the development of the app. This makes the choice for a suitable game designer even more important, Dr. Adams says. The designer has to understand the workings of the experiment and be able to translate this to a game environment in an appropriate way.

The collaboration with White Bat Games in this respect was very fruitful. During the different design stages they for example experimented with the art style trying to figure out what would work for the target audience. Additionally, they decided to keep the length of each experiment within the game to 5 minutes in order to stay within the threshold of attention and time players would be willing to invest.

Scientists who are interested in developing their own app should not be afraid to take inspiration from other successful apps and games, says Dr. Adams. Most people are more than willing to share their experiences. Another thing to keep in mind is to ensure there is sufficient funding throughout the app development process. Especially in later stages when the app might need updates. Finally, and this might seem like an open door, says Dr. Adams, finding a suitable game and app developer makes or breaks the final product. The quality of your collaboration on this end is for a large part reflected in the quality of the end product: your app. So investing in a good working relationship pays off.

The Great Brain Experiment is a great example where citizen science participates and contributes to scientific research powered by smart phones. The app enabled asking questions on a large scale and allowed for unique insights into how our brains work and compare against other people. Other projects involve geo-tagging, photographing, classifying for example. Multiple opportunities are available to bring science closer to the public demonstrating that it is not all about scientists in white lab coats.

Have you participated in citizen science projects before? Tell us your thoughts!

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