How Sam Glassenberg, Founder & CEO, Level Ex is using Video Game Tech to advance medicine.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sam Glassenberg: Thanks for asking! We’re feeling extremely fortunate, all things considered. I’m also lucky enough to be working for a company that can function effectively in a 100% remote configuration.
My wife, a pediatrician, and her clinic ran short on PPE early on in the pandemic, so I stayed up late one night and hacked together some homemade PPE out of an old snorkel mask, some CPAP filters and a voice amplifier. Thank goodness those days are over.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Level Ex.
Sam Glassenberg: I grew up in a family of doctors. My grandfather was a prominent doctor. My parents, aunts, uncles, and even my wife are all doctors. I broke tradition and built my career in the video games industry—working on games for Star Wars films at LucasArts, leading the DirectX team at Microsoft, and creating mobile games based on films as CEO of a top independent game publisher in Hollywood. My full-circle return to the healthcare industry happened by accident.
Years ago, my father, an anesthesiologist, asked me to build a game for him and his colleagues to practice performing fiberoptic intubations, a procedure used to secure a patient’s airway to ventilate them during surgery. I spent a few weekends making one, uploaded it to the App store, and promptly forgot about it. A few years went by before he asked me how many people had downloaded it, so I went and checked only to discover that more than 100,000 medical professionals had played it. I googled it and learned that efficacy studies had been conducted on it that showed it had actually improved physician performance.
This was an “aha!” moment for me. There was a major unmet need in medicine—one that could be filled by the technology we had already developed in the video games industry. So I started Level Ex to close that gap and use the technology and design of video games to capture the challenges of medical practice. You can hear more about that story here.
How does Level Ex innovate?
Sam Glassenberg: Level Ex’s mission is to advance the practice of medicine through play. We’ve united a team of world-renowned game developers, artists, designers, and expert physicians to take the best tech and neuroscience-based design from the video games industry and apply it to healthcare training. Our medical video games help physicians master critical skills and accelerate the adoption curve of new technologies and techniques in medicine.
We have over 700,000 medical professionals playing rare and difficult cases on our four mobile games: Cardio Ex for cardiologists, Gastro Ex for gastroenterologists, Airway Ex for anesthesiologists, and Pulm Ex for pulmonologists. Most recently, we launched the first cloud gaming platform in healthcare called Level Ex Remote Play, which allows physicians to work collaboratively on virtual patient cases in real-time over platforms like Zoom.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sam Glassenberg: Our players are doctors, so supporting them was — and continues to be — our biggest priority throughout the pandemic. Little was known about COVID-19 at first, and information was constantly evolving. We felt a responsibility to use our platform to disseminate clinical guidelines and critical training, so healthcare professionals around the world could access these best practices quickly and efficiently.
The result was COVID-19 airway management, diagnosis, and treatment levels for Airway Ex, Pulm Ex, and Cardio Ex. We conducted playtests with ER doctors, intensivists, and pulmonologists managing COVID-19 patients before releasing the levels, and the response was incredible. We heard everything from fervid requests for immediate release to remarks about the intensity and realism of the levels. The response over the past year has been overwhelming.
Additionally, with simulation centers shut down, medical conferences cancelled, and other in-person events put on hold, collaborative training options for physicians were limited. We had been developing a cloud gaming platform and realized it could be utilized to fill this void. With Level Ex Remote Play, we are able to provide medical professionals with the opportunity to train in a collaborative, interactive, and realistic environment. Just the other week, I invited medical futurist Dr. Rafael Grossmann to check out our new platform. Despite being many thousands of miles apart, we performed a virtual surgical procedure together over Remote Play.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Sam Glassenberg: This past year has reinforced the importance of staying nimble and responsive in our work. The pandemic further exposed and exacerbated systemic problems in our healthcare system as physicians desperately searched for the information and tools needed to combat a rapidly spreading and relatively unknown disease.
At Level Ex, we were in the middle of several major projects when the pandemic hit. I knew our team had the technology and talent to provide immense value to the healthcare industry, so I made the decision to reprioritize our work. We immediately shifted gears, gathering information on COVID-19 from all over the world and distilling it into interactive and easily digestible levels for our players delivered right to their phones via our mobile games. This was our mission in action. If we had continued with business as usual, we would have missed the opportunity to provide this value to not only the medical community but society as a whole.
What specific tools, software and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Sam Glassenberg: Our strategy as a company has always been to solve problems in medicine by unleashing solutions that have already been developed by the video games industry…
We’ve found great success taking the same approach on multiple fronts when it comes to remote work.
Here are a few examples:
● We’re on Zoom all day now, so we started using game technology to upgrade our Zoom presence. Using a green-screen and some eSports and game-streaming tools, one can add all sorts of content to their Zoom camera feed, projecting videos, apps, presentations, cat-cams, etc., behind them to better convey ideas and, of course, create venues for comic relief.
● I’ve personally perfected a Dragon’s-Lair-inspired setup where I project the Zoom screen onto a teleprompter mirror in front of my camera so I can look people in the eye when I talk to them. It actually makes a big difference —we’ve all been talking to people by looking ahead, above or below them this whole time, depending on where their webcam is attached.
● As a team, we’ve been hosting game days where we all play multiplayer online video games. This gave us all a much-needed opportunity to enjoy entertainment and social time that isn’t just another Zoom happy hour. Most people are Zoomed out by now. We’ve also been hosting “Game Jams,” where we break into groups for 2-3 days to create a fully functional game from scratch – the results are as amazing as they are hilarious.
Your final thoughts?
Sam Glassenberg: We’ve seen tremendous success in employing the technology and neuroscience from the games industry in medicine, but it surely doesn’t stop there.
Experienced game designers have an incredibly deep understanding and intuition of human motivation and the mechanics of learning. Game technology represents some of the most sophisticated and efficient hardware and software, built from the ground up to enable game designers to achieve their vision.
There are endless opportunities to utilize the know-how and, in some cases, the technology itself to solve problems in other disciplines. I’m not talking about those silly badges and other gamification nonsense — I’m talking about real game technology and design.