Project Discovery: A new virtual frontier


ProjectDiscovery Two students at RU School of computer Science, Hjalti Leifsson and Johann Orn Bjarkason, are in the middle of their exams. At the same time, they are participating in a massive cross-European research project, breaking ground in the new area of citizen science. So how do two undergraduate students get involved in a project of that scale?

„Every year the undergraduate students can take part in a three-week practical course in game development, where they implement their own ideas and design and basically have to have a game ready by the end of the course,“ says Hjalti. „Me and Johann worked together in that course last spring.“ The course is taught by dr. David Thue from the School of Computer Science and game development expert. Thue's position is a part of a collaboration agreement with computer game developing giant CCP, responsible for products such as the hugely successful Eve Online multi-player game.

„David contacted us as he had this big assignment and the student that had been working on it graduated so somebody needed to carry the torch.“

The research project in question streches from Iceland to Sweden, with a stopover in Switzerland. Scientists at Sweden's KTH and University of Uppsala are underway with mapping proteins in cells. The project is called Human Protein Atlas. The goal is to understand the role of protein in human cells and thereby preventing disease. An article was published about this project in the September version of Nature.


Hjalti and Johann

The pairing of a pattern with a certain cell would take a small group of scientists years to complete. Cue Hjalti, Johann and their Project Discovery. Their new computer game is the first of its kind – a game within a general multi-player game, in this case Eve Online, where players help scientists understand disease by simply playing. Perhaps that should be award enough, however, the game also yields awards within Eve Online. „Not only do you have a chance to make some Eve Online gold but you are using the downtime for something other than waiting,“ says Johann. Players pair together a pattern with an image - a simple game with great importance. 

„Its about giving players a task, just like any other game. The players know that this is what Project Discovery is all about and the reception has been great –everyone's very excited.“

This approach might be the best we have since computers can not, at least not yet, analyze patterns as successfully as the human brain. The data from Project Discovery is however verified by computers, at the offices of the start-up company Massively Multiplayer Online Science  (MMOS) in Switzerland. The company connects gaming with science. When a certain number of players have identified the protein in the same way, it is considered a correct pairing. The data is then sent to the scientists in Sweden.

„It is a lot of work,“ according to Hjalti and Johann. „The pressure is on but we are learning so much. Suddenly we need to have answers for scientists and other companies not only here in Iceland but in Switzerland and Sweden. It´s crazy. We are telling people these days that we can't do much now because we have exams. I think exams are not on our collaborator's radars anymore!“

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