If you want to check out the latest interactive tech-art installation, don’t bother going to a gallery or exhibition, just head to your local children’s hospital ward. It might not seem like a place you’d expect to find the soothing power of computer code, but when you think about it, it’s actually the ideal environment for this type of art. You have an appreciative audience who instinctively want to play and interact with objects (virtual and physical) and these experiences provide a welcome distraction from the tedium and potentially unpleasant clinical conditions of a long stay in a hospital.
Last year Jason Bruges Studio created an interactive installation at Great Ormond Street hospital. Nature Trail is located in the corridor on the way to the operating room, and for it, Bruges created a magical forest using LED wall panels. Glowing animals react to patients being wheeled to the operating table, and the installation is meant to make the experience feel a little less foreboding and impersonal.
Yesterday a new project from Chris O’Shea and Nexus Interactive Arts’ opened at Ann Riches Healing Space in Royal London Hospital. Woodland Wiggle is part of an Alice in Wonderland-style play space created by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture and graphic designer Morag Myerscough, which is full of oversized furniture—an enormous chair and lamp—a rooftop garden with views across London, and a giant TV which is is home to Woodland Wiggle.
O’Shea’s piece uses a Kinect camera to create an on-screen environment that kids can interact with. Wiggling their hands to create sounds or make rain, swiping at creatures on the screen and creating paint splats. The interactions had to be carefully considered so they would work with deaf children, blind children, children lying beds, and in wheelchairs.
O’Shea based the movements on suggestions made by the nurses, staff, and physiotherapists, incorporating a range of motions the staff use when they go on their rounds or as part of the workshops to keep the kids active. Things like spiraling arms for movement of the wind and trickle fingers in the air for rain, which are directly used in the piece. The challenge was in keeping the interaction simple yet engaging.
“I wanted to make sure that you could wiggle your hand and you’d get a reaction on the screen,” says O’Shea says. “The painting scene was about getting the blobs the shape of the people and then using the hand positions to do the paint splats. There's a lot of different things to get the kids moving around, for instance the motion trails behind them and the musical notes coming off their bodies—this was to try and encourage them to move around more. And the creatures like the bugs, the butterflies, and the bees I made quite high so the kids have to reach up to hit them.”
The piece is essentially a computer game on a giant screen, and the world of gaming is where O’Shea draws a lot of inspiration. “The installation's are pretty much like video games,” he says. “The hospital piece could work in someone's living room, it's only the size of the screen that makes it an installation. Games like Journey on the PlayStation and explorer games like Shadow of the Colossus. Journey is playful in the way you interact with it and the way you move through the world. It's not playful in a kind of kids way, it's more of a meditative game, but the beauty of it is something I'd like to try in my work.”
O’Shea’s work has always been playful, so a hospital seems like an ideal fit. “My work has always been about bringing things to life, making something a bit magical and it's always been about play, being playful and enjoying yourself. I don't want anyone to take it too seriously. And children are the most natural people at doing those things, they're always curious—if you can expose them to a really interesting experience at such a young age then that's kind of the key. If any of them remember the experience when they're older, like those cherished memories you have from when you’re a kid, then that would be fantastic.”