Balanced Media Technology Interview: Games Advancing Medical Treatment

Medicine and the world of gaming do not often mix well in the public eye. Whether it be the old debate of violence in video games or the stigma around our hobby, there has been quite a bit of pushback in recent years. However, with organizations such as Checkpoint popularizing studies into the minds of gamers, medicine and video gaming are moving closer together one day at a time. One company, Balanced Media Technology, is looking to harmonize that connection further, and have spent the last several years developing a medical AI that learns from the behaviors of gamers as they play their favorite games. We sat down with BMT’s media representative, Lori Mezoff, to ask them about their developments.

 

Currently BMT is working on developing HEWMEN, its crowd-sourced platform to collectively train Artificial Intelligence via assistance from outside human guidance. How is player input shaping the development of this program?

HEWMEN not only can help train Machine Learning algorithms, but it allows players to be part of the computations in the algorithms as well.  We can combine player inputs to create a collective result for a given problem.  In one of our current applications the results are not the actual answer to the problem, but an averaged intuition of where players believe an answer may be located.  This provides a filter for the machine learning algorithm that helps guide and focus where to use its processing.  In this case, humans are not “training” the ML algorithm, but rather working collaboratively with it and helping provide an intuition to guide the ML technique to specific areas, or to give further insight on the input data.

BALANCED follows standard techniques when it comes to user experience in games, building and testing iteratively to help refine the core game and engagement loops.  Having fun and keeping players engaged is paramount, and is always the core focus.  Once we know players are having fun and are engaged, then it’s time to refine the human computation task that are happening under the surface.

 

BMT’s website mentions that HEWMEN, “combines human perception… with raw computational power by utilizing volunteer grid computing.” How is HEWMEN collecting usable data as Gamers play, and how do you go about verifying that data afterwards?

Data sets, such as optical coherence tomography (OCT) scans, are provided by our partners.  These data sets are used to help define levels and interactions in the game.  Once a player begins to interact with the data through the patent pending HEWMEN game interface, it provides either a refinement or the generation of completely new data set.  The modified data sets are then stored locally on players’ machines or sent back so results can be analyzed.  We also utilize multiple verification and validation techniques on data that is reported back.  A problem is not being solved on a single machine in isolation, it is actually replicated and repeated across multiple games/machines all at the same time.  This allows for results to be compared and combined to remove any results that do not fit with the collective.

With every game there is a failure state where most gamers will achieve a, “Game Over,” as they play. As the focus of HEWMEN is the application and development of medical technologies, how does an achieved failure state impact HEWMEN’s development and data?

While games built using HEWMEN are able to process data and provide human insight, their game design does not have to be focused directly on the problems they are solving.  HEWMEN provides an abstraction between data/problem and the game.  This allows the game to have its traditional gameplay loops, where HEWMEN tasks are supplementary.  Therefore, a failure state in the game doesn’t directly relate to a “failure” in data/problem processing.

 

Currently HEWMEN has been integrated into your company’s original games, 8 Cell and Eye in the Sky, both of which are incredibly niche and focused. How can you see HEWMEN being more widely integrated into broader and more popular games?

We have already integrated HEWMEN into existing games such as Minecraft and Q*bert.  HEWMEN has integrations into Unity and the Unreal Engine that allow game developers to integrate with our technology and provides an interface for data/problem processing.  These integrations allow for developers to work with HEWMEN directly in the tool sets and pipelines they are already familiar with, as well as provide an abstraction to the actual algorithms running “under the hood”.  Our goal is to show multiple common gameplay loops found in existing games to use as examples for developers.  Once they see how common gameplay mechanics are being used and integrated with the HEWMEN interface, it opens to the door to integrate into existing games as well as create all new games.

 

Previously BMT has worked on several mods for the popular PC game Minecraft to develop co-medications for several diseases. How does this carry back to the development of BMT’s in-house games and HEWMEN?

We use everything we learned from working in Minecraft as well as our partnerships with Feed The Beast (FTB) and CubeCraft to help further the development of HEWMEN.  Having an opportunity to work with Minecraft and our partners helps prioritize features in our own infrastructure and development tools.  The experience is also used to think through new game mechanics that could be used as well as new types of problems and data sets that could be utilized within the same game environment.  In fact, the Minecraft mod used in the alpha event was not limited to only the co-medication chemotherapeutic problem, it is capable of working on multiple problems at the same time.  This is one of the great features of HEWMEN — games are built around data and techniques, not problems.  This allows the same game to be used over and over but not limiting it to a single problem.  Working with Minecraft has allowed us to test, deploy and validate our approaches and techniques.

Are there any plans currently for a wider release of HEWMEN integrated games on platforms such as Steam or Green-Man Gaming?

We have plans to release HEWMEN across all gaming platforms.  The HEWMEN feature sets available to games or applications may have limitations depending on the platform, but all should be able to doing some sort of human computation task at a minimum.  Our immediate goal is to focus on building demos and integrations for Unity and the Unreal Engine.  We have already been approached by a number of developers interested in integrating HEWMEN into their existing and/or upcoming games and having these demos and integrations should help support these efforts.

 

With the human input and active engagement through gaming, what is the end goal for the development and release of HEWMEN? While this iteration is clearly being tooled to work in the medical field, what is BMT’s ideal application goals for HEWMEN?

BALANCED’s current focus is to bring the combination of human computation and machine learning to the medical field, but HEWMEN is by no means limited to this industry.  Our goal is to show its effectiveness in the medical space and from there allow third parties to create HEWMEN enabled applications and games that expand into other markets.  We have already been contacted by companies in other industries such as transportation, satellite imagery and cyber security to look at opportunities in their specific use cases.  HEWMEN is a platform, and our ultimate goal is to open it up to developers so they can build out a new breed of software applications, one where humans and machines work together in the same environment, collaborating while doing things never before possible.

 

With the current media attitude towards gaming and studies thereto, have you found any difficulty or stigma promoting BMT and HEWMEN in the medical fields?

BALANCED’s HEWMEN platform combines multiple areas of expertise and has the ability to impact any industry it is applied to. This large-scale ability is a challenge to explain in a 5min chat, and understanding the technology is one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome when meeting with people from diverse backgrounds in the medical space.  The second largest challenge is finding enough resources to accommodate the opportunities that arise after these groups begin to understand how our technology can be applied to their subset of industry challenges.  We have not found the issue to be a stigma with gaming, but just in the realization of the tremendous potential that exists by harnessing the capacity and capability of the gaming community.

Can you tell me a bit about the successes HEWMEN’s already achieved in its Alpha stages?

One of the biggest results was the validation of our approach and techniques.  Specifically, Eye in the Sky: Defender was able to show that after about 7 levels of play (~15-20min), players were analyzing the OCT images of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) with the same level of accuracy as trained professionals.  This showed that players engaged through HEWMEN were capable of analyzing images as well as providing insight on where the disease state was located.  These results are being compiled and put together for a publication.  The alpha event also allowed for the following publications as well:

A Model for Integrating Human Computing into Commercial Video Games

2018 IEEE 6th International Conference on Serious Games and Applications for Health (SeGAH)

Video Games as a Distributed Computing Resource

Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on the Foundation of Digital Games

The alpha event also provided analysis on our chemotherapeutic co-medications data which is used to help find treatments for multi drug resistant cancers.  This is a collaboration between BALANCED and SMU’s Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery group, led by Pia Vogel, PhD and John Wise, PhD.  During the event streamers played a modified version of Minecraft BedWars.  During gameplay they help identify properties of lab test compounds that can be used to increase the success of further compound selection.  This event also helped foster a relationship between SMU and LSU Health in Shreveport, where compounds analyzed in during gameplay are being sent for animal trials.

 

What are your next plans for HEWMEN now that it’s released into its public Alpha?

We are working on putting together another event targeted around the end of 2018 to beginning of 2019.  This will provide us with another set of data towards our ongoing research and development, but also help formalize partnerships we are creating with influencers, foundations, research centers and corporations.  This event will lay the foundation to show the complete ecosystem of HEWMEN in action:

Allowing foundations and research partnerships to connect to the gaming community while having their processing and computational needs met;

Game community influencers having the ability to connect their community to causes and provide opportunities to help support the growth and engagement of their community;

Connecting industry partners to the large computational capability of the world’s first Super HEWMEN computer, along with providing opportunities to develop completely new applications that are now possible with the integration of humans and machines into a single platform;

And providing game developers a new opportunity to support their creations through the integration of HEWMEN, while simultaneously bring causes to their development and creative efforts.

 

Many thanks to Lori and the wider BMT team for sitting down with us! With HEWMEN’s barreling release into an Alpha state and an incumbent release onto popular gaming platforms, it’s only a matter of time before we talk about it’s progress in linking gaming and medicine very soon.

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SpatialOS: Making MMOs Big Again

Is SpatialOS The Next Big Tech?

Improbable has been on our radar for a while here at MMOGames. Who doesn’t love new technology? There’s always something to keep an eye on in the gaming world and the small shifts in technology can have a lasting impact on our multiplayer games. How many new games have been spawned by the suddenly free professional game engines? How many games suddenly have more voxels than you can shake the stick you made out of voxels in the game at? How many people remember the hope and promise of StoryBricks?

Admittedly, not all technology is created equal and not all good ideas get to be games. Taking two examples above of voxel technology and StoryBricks, the ideas behind them while genius wasn’t enough to see Everquest Next to fruition or the longevity of Landmark. Of course, there are always other factors at play around games: the money, the talent, the studio … and now thanks to 2018 porn stars and geopolitics.

Still, I can’t quite help but get excited when a new technology gets to shine both a light on itself and on the potential in the future. Shadowed images, almost ideas that could be. There are chances with new technology to take our worlds all sorts of places. Why else did every crowdfunding project in a certain window three or so years ago offer or outright pledge VR support? It was the wave of the future! A silly one in some cases, but still a wave.

This particular technology is getting more and more press thanks to E3 2018. Mavericks: Proving Grounds had bold claims of big player counts in the battle royale genre. No mere 100 players for them, they were going for 1000. It’s eye-catching to be sure but the technology, SpatialOS, caught my eye early last year when instead of being part of the battle royale revolution, it was used for a darling indie MMO.

Mavericks: Proving Grounds

RainBow

Developers Krillbite Studio wanted to do something for the Norwegian Gameplay Championship. We’ve all heard of game jams turning out fun little games in tight timeframes and with not many people behind them. How about an MMO in a week? The idea is clearly insane. A week to create a game that a lot of people could play, that could be entered into a competition and because they apparently don’t do things by halves in Norway, tackle the concept of xenophobia as the theme.

You can read their full adventure in putting the game together here. Suffice to say that the developers turned to Improbable and SpatialOS … and got the game done. There’s almost certainly going to be people who will look at the blog post and the concept of the game and try to draw comparisons to Agar.io or similar games but there’s no pleasing everyone I am afraid.

The point here is the technology exists and works with the engines our favorite devs already work with.

So what about it?

Let’s go first with what they claim themselves both on the Improbable website and in the promotional material for Mavericks: Proving Grounds.

Meaningful Persistence and Massive Scale

You can’t argue that being able to host ten times the number of people in a standard battle royale in a single match isn’t impressive. We’ll see eventually when it comes out if it is actually fun, but that’s not something you find in support documents or video tutorials. The skill of the devs and the execution of the vision will decide if the game is fun or not. I will admit I will be very amused at the thought of a thousand people at once squatting in bushes waiting to see who breaks first, but I never claimed to be normal.

The change in scale offers us options in plenty of avenues. I have no idea off hand how many players Crowfall hopes to have taking part in any particular siege but I bet it could be scaled up. The scaling technology could also deal with issues a more traditionally designed game might have with areas of high traffic and lag, but you’d have to grab a developer and ask them to be sure. What we players dream does not always match reality, especially where actual development is involved.

The idea of meaningful persistence is also a very alluring one. Setting fire to a forest to smoke out a number of foes or just to deprive them of cover. Demolishing things that stand in your way or cutting off retreat. We will be seeing plenty of developers looking at, for example, Crowfall with its physics and voxels and wondering how they can make it all last longer. After all, the hardest thing with any MMO is to make the world feel alive as living things change. The world shouldn’t be as soft as cheese because players absolutely will undermine the bedrock of everything just because they were bored, but the idea of taking a persistent world and being able to see the scars of its history as we play out our games is definitely appealing to me.

It is far too early to herald Mavericks: Proving Grounds as the next big thing in technology but it is certainly one of the most interesting things. It is also prophetically named. Whatever other projects are currently eyeing up or already deploying the talents of SpatialOS exist, they aren’t making the same noise. One way or another, this bold, big new entry into the battle royale genre will be the proving ground for more than just the players. It will prove the technology is or isn’t viable… and it will prove if we will be seeing more of it.

Great projects can die, just look at StoryBricks. That said, the possibilities offered by SpatialOS have the chance to make MMOs feel huge again in a way we have long since lost under fast travel and flying mounts.

Only time will tell if a huge world is a good one or merely a big empty promise.

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