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In my strangest dreams, I never imagined myself as a corgi. And yet somehow, on an October afternoon at Children’s Hospital Colorado, I’m running along in doggie form, trying to collect treats in time to a catchy electronic tune that resembles the Stranger Things soundtrack, all of which is taking place in outer space.
Of course, I haven’t really gone canine. I’m playing a game called Space Pups, one of 25 pieces of content pre-loaded onto the virtual reality headsets that make up Starlight Xperience. It’s the latest program from Starlight Children’s Foundation, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that aims to provide comfort and joy to hospitalized kids. That’s the goal here too, in this case by transporting sick little ones from their sterile environments to new worlds (à la Space Pups or the Droid Repair Bay created by financial sponsor Star Wars: Force for Change), well-known destination spots (the Great Barrier Reef, Buckingham Palace) via Google Expeditions, or even the driveways of their own homes, thanks to Google Earth.
“Hospitals are busy places,” says Samantha Martinez, the program director at Starlight. “There’s chaos around you, and providing an escape where you can put on a headset and have serenity around you can help.”
Children’s was one of just five hospitals chosen for the pilot version of Starlight Xperience this summer, partly because of its longtime partnership with Starlight—the two organizations have worked together for more than 20 years—and partly because of its ability to use the VR headsets in a variety of ways as opposed to a facility that specializes in one type of medicine. So far, Children’s has employed the technology to distract patients from pain, anxiety, or fear during spinal taps, pulmonary therapy (which helps kids with cystic fibrosis improve their lung function), dressing changes for burns and other wounds, and more.
It also helps that Children’s has been an early adopter of visual and augmented reality; staffers started a dedicated program two years ago, and the medical center became the first pediatric hospital in the country to create a gaming and technology specialist position. As a result, the physicians and child-life specialists are familiar with different VR platforms and could provide helpful feedback to Starlight on what to tweak before Starlight Xperience officially launched on October 11.
Children’s started with five headsets, but now that the program is live, child life director Carla Oliver has an order in for 15 more. (By the end of the year, more than 1,000 of these devices will be in hospitals across the country.) “Within a year, I’m going to want 100 of these things,” she says. “We’re going to want to be able to leave these in rooms with kids so every child has quick and easy access to them. As technology advances, they’re just going to get better, so that’s really exciting.” The draws of the Starlight headsets, which were built by Lenovo, are numerous. They don’t have any wires, minus those for the headphones; they’re easy to wipe down; no Wi-Fi is needed to access the content. You can even use them while lying down, a necessity for many medical procedures.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any concerns around the tech. Some parents have expressed concerns about exposing their kids to more screen time, especially since the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t released guidelines for virtual reality specifically. (In 2016, the organization did issue new recommendations for kids’ media use in general.) Children’s is actually in the process of developing screening tools to determine which patients Starlight Xperience is best suited for and in which situations. Yet, as Dr. Joe Albietz, the hospital’s medical director of child life, says, “We know that minimizing screen time, especially when it is in place of other activities, is something to be sought. But these aren’t children who can go to soccer practice. These are children who can’t get up and play and that can be for a day, a week, a month, years. The alternative to not giving them these types of enriching experiences is that that child will sit inside in a bed, and that is unacceptable.”
Even though the patients who use Starlight Xperience are technically still in beds, they feel as if they’re somewhere else, so much so that they may remember their VR experiences as real interactions. That’s already a bizarre scenario when you think about a completely unrealistic game like Space Pups, but it gets even weirder when you engage what different Children’s doctors and Starlight staffers have separately called groovy, disco, and mighty mode. Whatever the name, it ratchets up the gaming environment so your surroundings become more saturated and, quite literally, in-your-face. When it was turned on for me, the planets around my adorable little space pup lit up in neon shades, and it felt as if the universe were bursting. It was the ultimate adrenaline rush—a sensation that sick little kids might not otherwise experience.