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Once upon a time there was Niamh Barnes, a 7-year-old girl treated in an English hospital. One day she suggested to doctors and nurses to find a system to support the little patients, to distract them and go with them during their stay in the wards. That desire by Niamh is now reality in Alder Hey’s pediatric hospital in Liverpool that introduced Alder Play, an app created to help kids during therapies that combines Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence for a better hospital experience.

Several studies at Alder Hey Hospital, one of the UK’s most renowned pediatric centers, show that a distracted child is more easily treatable and in shorter times. Often some hospital analysis and procedures are painful, especially for a child, but they are needed and there is no way to avoid them. It is therefore important to make those moments more comforting for the little patients and reward them for their courage.

Starting from these considerations the designers from UsTwo, an English studio, began the field research listening to children, nurses, doctors and looking around to understand how to develop a solution that easily integrates with the environment, without distorting it. The research has brought interesting insights: in the doctors’ rooms there were often ‘DIY’ solutions of screens to reproduce the children’s favorite cartoons. Another inspiration was that of the surrounding environment: the hospital is built in such a way as to blend in with the landscape, has a hilly appearance and on the inner walls there are several natural illustrations and friendly animals, easily reproduced in a kid-friendly interface.

An app created to help kids during therapies was therefore a solution derived from the direct observation of the context. The hills became an integral part of the computer experience and the characters painted on the walls became partners of the children during their hospital stay. Before arriving at the hospital, the child chooses his buddy who starts to stand next to him immediately, explaining where and what he will do. Moreover this companion, thanks to Augmented Reality, is integrated into the hospital rooms and appears in different places during the child’s stay, carrying him in the exploration of space. Exploratory activity is a very important element to reassure the child in a place that is unknow to him and that could frighten him; This is why Alder Play encourages young patients to discover different places in a sort of treasure hunt and rewards them every time they reach a goal.

Our vision is to transform the children’s experience in the hospital. We want to distract patients during treatment and reduce their fears

Nik Barnes, Alder Hey Consultant

Besides the playful and explorative aspect, is very interesting the integration of Artificial Intelligence into the reassuring process of kids and parents. The design studio has integrated the IBM Watson technology into the application, which through a chatbox called ‘Ask Oli’, is able to answer the questions of children and parents about medical procedures or hospital spaces. The application aims not only to relieve children and parents, but also to educate them with videos and activities on future treatments, such as blood tests. Again, rewards are provided by the medical staff who encourage the child and help him build a relationship with doctors and nurses.

Alder Play is a complete project, which takes in consideration all the players in the reference context and offers digitally innovative and integrated solutions, becoming a good case study of how new technologies can be a support in sensitive areas such as pediatric hospital. It is important to point out that an app created to help kids during therapies is the result of the co-design and collaboration of various professionals who in the case of Alder Play were the NHS, the design studio, the staff and hospital patients and several local public and private donors. This shows us how innovation often comes from a choral and holistic approach in which the designer plays the role of playmaker, absorbing information and transforming it into meaningful solutions for the user.

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