Interactive games put young patients at ease


A project taking shape in Antwerp uses interactive imagery and artificial intelligence to create calming, creative environments for children facing long stays in hospital

Therapy through storytelling

A stay in hospital can be unpleasant for any patient – and even more so for children, who may not understand why they are there and miss home or their friends. Researchers based at the Sint-Lucas University College of Art and Design in Antwerp are combining art and technology in interactive multimedia games and environments to reduce that stress.

“Using new technologies in art, we would like to improve the daily lives of children who are hospitalised long-term,” explains Ludivine Lechat, one of the researchers.

The team, from the school’s Experimental Media Research Group (EMRG), are working on several approaches to storytelling – from an “interactive wall” to artificial intelligence – with the potential to be integrated into a complete system to complement children’s play and therapy sessions.

The four-year project, called Story Table, is now in its second year. The first hospital tests of the interactive wall are about to begin: trying out simple graphics and allowing children to interact and control them with their movements. At the same time, the team is conducting research into the kinds of imagery and environments that can help make long hospital stays less stressful and more enjoyable.

“For example, we’re going to make an interactive aquarium,” Lechat says. The idea is to develop interactivity that encourages creativity and is calming for the child. While technologies to treat physical illness continue to improve rapidly, she says, “we also have all these emotional states that we need to care for.”

No digital babysitting

The EMRG team emphasises the growing body of evidence that a patient’s environment plays an important role in their recovery. The project aims to use the research group’s wide range of experience with digital artwork, creativity research and human-computer interaction.

The next step will be to develop the artificial intelligence aspect of the project. “The idea is that the stories would be able to evolve by themselves,” Lechat explains, so that children will be able to create and change the story each time they play.

The idea is to create it with the children and to see what works, what doesn’t work, what can we improve

- Ludivine Lechat

At first sight, the idea might seem a little far-fetched, but Lechat points out that children are already very familiar with interactive and multimedia technologies. On the other hand, she stresses that the aim is to provide a tool for therapy and guided play – not a “computer babysitter” – and games must be carefully designed to not overexcite potentially frail children.

“The idea is to create it with the children and to see what works, what doesn’t work, what can we improve, which direction we have to go in,” she says, emphasising the project’s co-creation approach to working with health-care professionals, child patients and their therapists.  

The project is supported by the government of Flanders and is working with hospitals, including Antwerp and Leuven’s university hospitals, as well as computer science research groups such as CLiPS in Antwerp.

Photo: The interactive aquarium should encourage creativity while calming kids down in the process
©Courtesy EMRG