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Wishplay’s virtual Halloween delivers a treat to terminally ill children

Wishplay Virtual Halloweeen
Credit: Jeremy Thompson Image used with permission by copyright holder

If you or someone you love has ever spent any time as a patient in a hospital, you know how isolating the experience can be. Those four walls and your hospital bed become your whole world. For patients receiving palliative care — those with essentially no hope for recovery — that room is often the last thing they ever see. 

For David Parker, a Toronto-based technology developer, this situation was unacceptable, so he set himself the goal of providing these patients an escape — albeit a temporary one — through virtual reality. Two years ago, he began to approach local hospitals with a simple idea: He would bring an inexpensive, consumer-grade VR rig to patients’ bedsides, and curate a virtual mini-holiday that let them experience a slice of their pre-palliative lives. Unlike some of the existing clinical VR gear that had been used in the past, Parker’s version would be absolutely free, and it would be deeply personal: He would let patients make custom requests for the content.

Though that sounds like a simple concept, making it happen wasn’t simple at all. Parker had to overcome several hurdles, from convincing skeptical hospital staff that he wasn’t using patients as guinea pigs for a new for-profit business venture, to figuring out how to make all of the VR gear hospital-safe from an infection control point of view. Eventually, Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital became the first to give the green light.

Giving his clients a VR experience that went beyond stock footage meant that Parker would go to a patient’s favorite sidewalk cafe, or a park bench, and set up a 360-degree video camera. The effort was worth it. Being able to don a VR headset, and be immersed in that familiar environment — even if only for five minutes or less — had a profound effect on those who tried it. “Right from the beginning, it was so magical,” Parker told Digital Trends. The patients’ reactions were unabashed joy. “They realized that the world was no longer closed off to them,” he said, “there was a ray of hope that they could actually do something.”

His first clients were older patients, seeking to relive their fondest memories, but Parker decided the next step was to bring VR to very sick children, so that they wouldn’t miss out on things like Halloween. As a father of two, it was a no-brainer. “Being able to create a virtual environment so that they can experience one of the happiest times in a kid’s life,” he said, “I mean, that’s just the best damn thing you could ever think of. It just has to happen.” With the help of friends and family, Parker staged an early trick-or-treating session and shot it all on a high-end 360 camera, from a kid’s perspective. The first clients to get a taste of this virtual candy-collecting crusade will be patients at Toronto’s Emily’s House, a hospice that serves terminally ill children and their families.

In order to get the word out, and reach as many patients as possible, Parker has established a non-profit, called Wishplay, which, if everything goes according to plan, will become the nexus for a much larger, crowdfunded and crowdsourced VR experience platform. It starts with this year’s virtual Halloween: On October 31, there will be a pre-recorded trick or treat experience that anyone can download if you have a Google Cardboard and a compatible phone. Or, you can tune in to a livestream 360-degree feed, shot from the perspective of a family handing out candy to kids as they come by the house.

“We consider this is a precursor,” Parker said about the virtual Halloween, “because the next one is Christmas.” Eventually, he hopes that the public will become engaged with the platform and sign up to be volunteer “experience collectors” — people who take 360-cameras with them when they travel, or take part in exciting activities, and submit the footage to Wishplay to be edited. Ideally, patients will have their VR experience wishes granted by the crowd, and everyone else — healthy or sick — will be able to enjoy it, too. People can also support the program through donations of money or time: “We’re giving these headsets and VR packages to hospitals. We’ll need volunteers to help deliver the experience to patients.”

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Simon Cohen
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