Sick children get a dose of Kinect-enabled empowerment

A seriously ill child is every family’s nightmare. So it’s no wonder that young patients and their families are filled with anxiety when a child requires frequent hospital visits. And while a great bedside manner can help alleviate the stress, a hospital, even a pediatric one, can still be a frightening place for kids and parents—which is why Boston Children’s Hospital installed a Kinect-enabled interactive media wall in its recently renovated lobby.

The 20-foot-tall, gently curved wall engages the young patients and their families as it displays any of nine scenes, each filled with special effects controlled by the onlookers’ movements. Youngsters quickly discover that a wave of their hand can rearrange stars in a night sky, or that walking will make leaves flutter in a garden scene. Parents, too, get in on the action, eagerly helping their child become immersed in the interactive wonders.

The Kinect-enabled interactive media wall at Boston Children's Hospital helps give seriously ill children a sense of empowerment at a time when their lives seem out of control.

The media wall was created for Boston Children’s Hospital by the combined talents of designers, engineers, mathematicians, and behavioral specialists at the University of Connecticut (UConn). As Tim Hunter, director of UConn’s Digital Media Center and Digital Media & Design program explains, the experience is intended first and foremost for the youngsters, who are delighted to have a sense of control in a situation where they often feel helpless.

“Our goal was to create something that would empower physically and emotionally challenged children at a time in their life when most events are beyond their control,” says Hunter. “Doctors and nurses, along with Mom and Dad, dictate most of what’s happening to them—for good reason. We wanted to make something the kids could take control of—something that would be theirs; something they would look forward to when they come to the hospital.”

“However,” Hunter continues, “we wanted to create something for the family, too. After all, the entire family is going through this, and we wanted to let parents be part of the engagement, to be able to have this group family experience.”

The wall’s seemingly magical powers are the product of a lot of technology, including 13 Kinect sensors and seven optical cameras, which combine to cover a space of 18 feet by 24 feet (about 5.5 meters by 7.3 meters). The project was begun in 2012, before the Kinect for Windows v2 sensor was available, but the finished installation uses a combination of five v2 and eight original sensors, all mounted overhead. The five Kinect v2 sensors capture the frontal view of the participants, while the eight original Kinect sensors track the participants from behind. Together with the seven optical cameras, they provide a stream of high quality data on movements and gestures, which are then used to animate avatars or otherwise manipulate the onscreen display.

With all those sensors in place, the system can readily track individual people, with one Kinect sensor handing off the tracking to another as a participant moves through each sensor’s range. The multiplicity of sensors also means that participants, or their on-screen avatars, can readily interact, which makes the experience all the more engaging, especially when patients and parents cooperate.

Theoretically, the system could capture the movements of as many people as can fit into the area that the 13 sensors monitor. But as Tim Gifford, director of UConn’s Advanced Interactive Technology Center explains, the team designed the software to limit the number of bodies being tracked. For instance, in the media wall’s musical instrument scene, the software allows up to 12 participants to play simultaneously. Likewise, the “star man” experience, in which participants use their gestures to change the shape of a constellation, can accommodate a total of eight participants at a time. Otherwise, says Gifford, “The kids can no longer appreciate what their movements are causing.”

The interactive media wall opened in late 2014, to rave reviews from patients, families, and hospital staff. And while the technological wizardry is indeed amazing, the real enchantment of the wall is found in the smiles on the faces of seriously ill children, who can take control of their environment and find delight in an immersive experience.

The Kinect for Windows Team

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