Starbright World: Inspiration and insights for virtual visits

Using shared virtual worlds in hospitals to reduce loneliness may sound a bit futuristic, but we recently discovered a 25 year-old antecedent. From a guy named Steven Spielberg.

As chairman of the Starlight Children’s Foundation, a charity supporting hospitalised children and their families, Spielberg and his team envisaged virtual worlds where hospitalised children could connect with each other, escaping boredom, fear and pain. A virtual playground for ill children. It was called Starbright World.

Steven Spielberg launching Starbright World

In our mission to virtually connect the less mobile to people and places they love, we were keen to understand why Starbright World became so big, and importantly, why it disappeared. From interviews, articles, blog posts and clinical studies online, some learnings emerged about this 1994 project.

Six insights from virtual worlds in hospitals

Proven impact

The Web was only just beginning – Google and Wikipedia weren’t even ideas then – and virtual, connected worlds were a stunning escape for ill children. Illness often leads to physical isolation which can bring on social isolation, and anything to counter that is gold for both patient and carer. Participants in a clinical trial of a subsequent iteration had significantly lower levels of loneliness and a significantly higher willingness to return to hospital. It even impacted observers, with Wired Magazine noting ‘all those who actually go into the hospitals seem deeply struck by the human value of the endeavor’.

Struggling, expensive infrastructure

Delivering interactive virtual worlds over the available networks in 1994 was a huge challenge. The New York Times found it ’somewhat slow and clumsy’, despite the DS3 lines connecting the system costing $50,000 to install and $8,000 a month to run, all on 100 Pentium PCs costing $6,000 each. The only clouds available in those days were the virtual ones in Starbright.

Desire to connect

The creative and interactive visuals offered a welcome distraction and change of environment, but the connection to others was the critical component despite the restrictions of the system and what the New York Times called the ‘struggle to forge relationships through keyboard’.

Content disagreements

Project stakeholders seemed to have competing visions about what type of content and experience was best. Which seems understandable for a project of this size – with four large corporate partners and six hospitals involved and the huge costs of creating and rendering virtual worlds.

Importance of a shared space

Video calling – even at less than a quarter of the quality today on phones, conducted in a separate window and requiring a $1,000 Webcam – was an appealing feature, but the virtual worlds are what enabled a true escape. When Chief Architect Tamiko Thiel was asked why the whole thing couldn’t just be video only since it was so popular, she said, ‘You need some sort of context, some sort of shared experience.’ Especially as so many of the conversations were between children at different hospitals who didn’t know each other.

Lack of portability and accessibility

Ultimately the system was replaced by a Web-based alternative that lacked much of the virtual capabilities but which met a critical requirement: access from home.  So both children convalescing at home as well as family wanting to communicate with children in hospitals could participate.

25 years later: The potential for virtual reality in care

In the period since, much of what hindered the original concept of shared virtual worlds in care has been overcome:

Robust infrastructure

Connectivity speeds available to a city hospital or home in 2019 in an advanced economy should be 650% faster (from the 45mbps of DS3 to the 300mbps of 5G) at .5% of the price ($146,000 annual cost of DS3 to the $630 annual 5G cost at a leading US operator) – with wireless access.

Inexpensive equipment

The cost of the equipment to access virtual worlds has decreased 30x, going from the $6000 Pentium PC to the $200 Oculus Go standalone VR headset.  And for video calling, the $1,000 Webcam needed at that time is today normally embedded in every connected phone, tablet or computer from which we might video call.

Immersive experiences

Virtual worlds have gone from something we could glimpse through a tiny window to enveloping, immersive environments that transform our surroundings. From a tethered screen on a desk to wireless goggles on our heads. From fumbling with keyboards and mice to navigating with gaze and voice. Virtual worlds are not expensive productions requiring months of teamwork but built in minutes with tiny 360 cameras and inexpensive software. Virtual spaces can now not only be consumed by patients and their families but even created by them. For example, we’ve been working with families who film their own immersive scenes to share in virtual visits with loved ones in care. It’s a 10 minute learning curve on a $250 camera for instant, personalised output.

Greater portability and accessibility

Perhaps the most exciting change in the last twenty five years has been the potential to enable access to virtual experiences for so many more of those who are ill. After several years as a desktop-based virtual world, Starbright was ported to a Web experience so children could communicate with their families and access the experience once home-bound and in recovery. This compromise is no longer necessary. Through cheaper bandwidth and devices, the potential reach of virtual visiting is huge.

And we think it’s time for that potential to be realised.

Nicholas Babaian

Nicholas Babaian

Product and Sales