Crowdsourcing and third party monetisation (aka the trend to ‘free’) are a couple of my favourite themes and Foldit combines them both to help solve biology problems that have applications in cancer, HIV and Alzheimers. Brilliant.
Foldit have released a puzzle game in which the solutions that the players come up with are real world possible solutions for how proteins might fold. That is signifcant because there are many, many ways in which proteins might fold and finding the optimal solution is one of the hardest problems in biology, and more importantly one that can’t be solved cost effectively through the use of raw computing power. It is important because understanding how certain proteins fold is on the critical path for combating the diseases listed above.
You can download the game from Foldit’s site, and if you play you will see it is a game with similarities to some of the iPhone based puzzle games. It is a little rough round the edges, but both the concept of what they are doing and the practical implications are very cool.
Thinking ahead, this idea of using games to crowdsource solutions to difficult science and engineering problems could be a way to finance free to play games. The idea could even be extended to non-scientific problems like testing the response to advertising campaigns or product ideas. Foldit feels like it has been put together by the people looking for the solution, but there is no reason why the problem couldn’t be defined in the abstract and offered up to third party developers who would then design the game in return for payment based on the value of the solution delivered.