Start-up of the day: Virtual playground supports recovery of children in hospitals

A virtual playground for children in hospitals. PlaygroundVR is putting the finishing touches to the technical development of their virtual reality environment. “Playing outdoors is invaluable for children’s development,” says Freek Teunen, co-founder of PlaygroundVR. “Outside, there is plenty of scope for their imagination. They do a thousand things with just a ball.” Former students of Eindhoven University of Technology also want to offer this experience to younger hospital patients.

Children can be adversely affected if they are in hospital for a longer period of time and are unable to play outside as a result. “By wearing the VR glasses, children can imagine themselves to be at a playground just like any other playground they normally have in their daily lives. There are also fantasy elements such as a large music box or flying hoops,” Jason van Eunen explains, co-founder of PlaygroundVR. The whole thing is very colorful. “The children can see each other through virtual avatars. So they are really able to play together.”

How did you come up with this idea?

We are very passionate about the technology. That’s why we wanted to see how we might make Virtual Reality (VR) as useful as possible. The advantage of VR is that the user is able to forget for a moment where he or she is and can completely immerse themselves in another world. Subsequently, we soon discovered that our technology would be very beneficial for hospital patients. They aren’t able to play like they do at home. As the children themselves have indicated, they miss playing outside the most. That’s why we have developed a virtual playground.”



Doesn’t that just mean that you are making children sit in front of a screen even more?

Teunen: “We certainly don’t want children to be wearing VR glasses all of the time. That’s why we also work with play sessions, a short period when children can play with the glasses. Although we do consider that our virtual playground is different from the shooting games that children often play on screens. Of course we would like to see children playing outdoors. But if that isn’t possible, VR glasses are a pretty good solution. We still connect children with each other and give them the experience of playing outside.” Van Eunen adds to that: “It would be better if children could learn new games in the virtual playground and eventually apply them in real life. We want to further stimulate imagination and creativity that way.”

How are you going to finance this?

“We have launched a crowdfunding project this week. Our goal is to raise 55 thousand euros. Then three hospitals will be able to use the virtual playground in their children’s ward. Approximately half of that money will be used for the latest developments in technology. We will use the rest to further roll out the concept,” Teunen states.

“The goal behind crowdfunding is to show hospitals the pedagogical benefits of virtual playgrounds. This is difficult with VR because it is a completely novel technology. We first have to prove that it works. That’s what we’re going to do with the money that we raise. We think that children feel better because of the playground and as a result are able to recover much faster.”

“Financing this product with donations doesn’t seem right to us. That’s why next year we want to see how we could use the virtual playground as part of a course of treatment. We are hoping that the playground will become a healthcare resource so that it can be paid for out of medical insurance costs.”

Why did you opt for crowdfunding?

“We think crowdfunding is very appropriate for our objective. PlaygroundVR is a start-up and definitely contributes to society. We provide children with moments of happiness at a time when they are extremely vulnerable. Crowdfunding is a way to build support,” says Van Eunen.

© PlaygroundVR

How can VR be part of a treatment?

Van Eunen: ” Distractions are very important to children when they are in hospital. That’s why there are pedagogical staff in the children’s ward and  CliniClowns and iPads to keep the children busy. PlaygroundVR is distracting in several ways because it ensures that the child feels like he or she is completely out of the room. Instead of watching a movie, the kids are really immersed in it.”

“This distraction caused by wearing VR glasses can be used during a treatment. For instance, when a child is holding an infusion needle in their hand. This is an unpleasant experience because it doesn’t feel right and it’s not nice to watch either. A child can play outside with the VR-glasses on and is less aware that a needle is being stuck into their hand. This helps to avoid pain and maybe even painkillers. This allows a child to get through a whole treatment feeling a lot less fearful.”

“We spoke to a girl who literally said that she had forgotten for a short while that her leg was broken. Because she could just walk in a playground. Those are the wonderful things about VR. You can’t do that with an iPad,” Teunen says proudly.

Was there a time when you were afraid that the concept was not going to work?

“Yes,” says Teunen. “As soon as we started work on this three years ago. We took part in a pitch competition at the time, but were turned down right away. Back then, the VR industry had not yet developed very far and the technology was still quite unknown. Now we can see that healthcare professionals and parents do appreciate the value of it. They really like PlaygroundVR better than, for example, a Playstation with Call of Duty.”

“The challenge for us is to find hospitals that dare to take this innovation aboard. Institutions often find these kinds of new technologies exciting to implement. We are already in talks with a number of hospitals that are interested as it is. We will be launching the virtual playground at the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital towards the end of the year.”

It sounds like an important aspiration to help children. Do you have a concrete goal that you want to achieve?

“Of course, it’s cool if we can improve the hospital experience for a few children. But in the long term we want to be able to connect children with each other who are in different hospitals. Then children who have the same conditions will be able to share their experiences with each other. This way, we not only want to forge new contacts between children, but we also want to bring children together with their families and friends. As an example, we could connect children in the hospital to their classmates so that they would be able to play together in the playground,” Van Eunen explains.

Teunen continues: “We want to show that it is more fun to invent a game that has a real impact. Aside from that, we want to contribute to the VR revolution in healthcare. VR can really make a difference in healthcare. Not just for children, but also for people with dementia, for example. We are  hopeful that PlaygroundVR will inspire others to make great applications for healthcare as well.”

Better integration of autistic children thanks to assistive technology

Ein Projekt aus der Studie Outside The Box: Ein achtjähriges Mädchen machte ihr Problem morgens früh aufzustehen, zum Forschungsgegenstand. Ergebnis der experimentellen Arbeit war ein Super Mario Weck-System. Es besteht aus einem Schüttelkissen, einem Wecker mit Zeitanzeige und einer Fußmatte, die betreten werden muss, um den Wecker auszuschalten.

VIENNA, 24 November 2018 – How can technology support the social game between autistic and non-autistic children? A research team is addressing this question in a project on assistive technology at the Vienna University of Technology. The approach is unconventional: the children themselves are also involved in the design process.

Autistic children often react positively to technologies. Dealing with technologies is often easier for them than dealing with people, because they are easier for them to understand. The research team around Dr Christopher Frauenberger in the Human-Computer Interaction Group of the Technical University of Vienna makes use of this. In the study “Social Play Technologies“, they use digital technologies to enable autistic and non-autistic children to have shared play experiences.

Social interaction

Frauenberger has been involved in the communication of people with disabilities since his doctoral thesis at the Queen Mary University of London. In his PhD research, he developed a sensitivity to body language and other non-verbal communication.

Later, at the University of Sussex, Frauenberger was involved in the Echoes II study. The aim was to create a virtual, social interaction-education-learning environment for autistic children. In this study, he first came into contact with participatory design. The principle of involving future users in the development of products is rooted in the Scandinavian workers’ movement. In the technology sector it is used to find out what role technologies can play in life and to give users a share in shaping technological future perspectives, Frauenberger explains.

In Echoes II he noted that many things happen in the environment of the learning environment and not necessarily in the role of a teacher. This gave rise to his idea to openly enter the design process and see which technologies are developing. This is a major challenge for the research work, but it should ultimately contribute to a better quality of life for autistic people.

Design Process

Frauenberger: “Assistive technology has traditionally been about compensating for disabilities, such as hearing aids. We want to get away from the normative attitude of the majority and the mantra ‘We repair shortcomings’.”

This approach was applied in his first study at the Vienna University of Technology, which ran from 2014 to 2017. The study was entitled Outside the Box and was conducted with individual autistic children. The research team learned how to better integrate these children. Methods such as cooperative research, digital manufacturing or acting were used. Frauenberger: “It was an opportunity to get to know each other, to involve children in the creative process and to develop concepts. Later, the individual concepts were further investigated to arrive at the concept they wanted to realise.

Social Play Technologies

In the follow-up project Social Play Technologies, the research team builds on these theoretical foundations. The aim of the study is to develop technologies that support the social interaction between autistic and non-autistic children. It is no longer only individual children who are to be involved in the development and design process, but also groups of children. The groups consist of four to six children aged six to eight. The children are offered a free game platform, which they can interpret freely. In the development of technology, the emphasis is more on social roles than on toys.

Emotional regulation

There are different ideas within the groups and it is sometimes difficult to find a negotiating space, Frauenberger explains: “Children have different ideas about social play. Some like it when everyone speaks out loud and has fun, others need more structure. Autistic children often need emotional regulation. They have to deal with overburdening social situations and this influences their idea of a successful social game.

After the first year of the project, two prototypes emerged from the concepts developed. Their designs are currently being evaluated. The effects of the technology are tested in the groups involved and in comparison groups.

Social Situations

In one project, the children thought together about the design of the rooms and the lighting. In the execution, each child has built a construction that is partly constructed of electronic textile with integrated LEDs. This created illuminated caves and connecting corridors. Each LED textile was activated or controlled by a stress ball, where each ball created a different colour and always influenced all LED textiles, causing the colours to mix. In order to reach agreement on certain colour effects, a common discussion room was needed for the negotiations.

Another project was about movement and music. The children placed baseboards on the floor of the room to control the music. When the children move over the plates, coordination is needed to create certain effects, such as loud/soft or on/off. At the same time, the structure is loose enough to give the children the space to play.

Both prototypes are based on microcontrollers, i.e. semiconductor chips that contain a processor and a peripheral function at the same time. These are connected via WLAN or Bluetooth. Both prototypes work via pressure sensors: these activate and control the LED light at the voltage balls and the music aspects at the base plates. In the music/movement project, the loudspeakers are integrated into the base station.

“Outside the Box” and “Social Play Technologies” are financed by the Scientific Research Fund.