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Welcome to Starbright

An innovative virtual reality project brings comfort to children in hospital in the US. Reva Klein reports

I'm sitting in a dark room where Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams and General Norman Schwarzkopf have sat before me. But more of them later. For the moment, I am represented on the computer screen as a podgy pink bear and I'm playing with a hyperactive bunny being operated by someone thousands of miles away.

The game demands that we work together if either of us is to reach our final destination. So instead of zapping each other to smithereens as in many other computer games, we wend our way through this compelling adventure, holding the door open and turning on the lights for each other.

The game is Cave World, the characters are three dimensional and the graphics are craggy, dark and mysterious. Me and my bunny friend, alias Jose, can switch from the game to communicating by typing, as on the Internet, or by voice or by video.

This is Starbright World, where, from the Rec Tec Room at Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, I am playing in a virtual playground. My playmates on the screen are acutely sick children in a number of hospitals around the country - children who may not see others their age, let alone play with them, from one week to the next. Some are cancer patients, some have cystic fibrosis, some are in hospital for transplants or kidney dialysis. All are at risk of losing their self-esteem and social skills and could succumb to depression as a result of their illnesses and being removed from family and friends.

What Starbright World brings them is a re-creation of the playground. Instead of sitting in a one-to-one relationship with a video game, Starbright allows young users to get the psycho-social benefits of interactively "being" with other children.

Peter Samuelson, the British-born film producer who founded the Starbright Foundation in 1989, which has spawned Starbright World, explains the problems that the children his organisation is targeting are up against. "When a child goes into hospital, all their mechanisms of self-empowerment are wrenched away. They are scared because they're not in charge of what's happening. They have no interaction with kids other than sick kids, so peer support is not there. "

Starbright World is a way of breaking through the social isolation that long-term or frequent hospitalisation brings with it. It is also an attempt to minimise, through the distraction of high-quality computer graphics in cracking good adventure games, the painful procedures that many of these children must undergo as part of their treatment.

A child on the west coast can join in a computer game with other children from Texas and New York, then switch over to "talking", either via keyboard or literally. When they talk, it's about baseball, music, about how they feel, sometimes about their illnesses. They can give support to each other through just listening, sharing. A number of young people have allayed others' fears about cancer treatment. In another network session, two children struck up a friendship before realising that they were on different floors of the same hospital.

This revolutionary computer network features state-of-the-art technology not yet available commercially. Its development represents what may be a unique collaboration between the worlds of medicine, information technology and entertainment, which have collectively tapped into big money through business contacts.

The highest profile player in Starbright World is Steven Spielberg, who has put his weight, ingenuity and creative team behind the operation. As well as producing graphics for Starbright virtual worlds through his Amblin Production Company, the creator of ET and Jurassic Park is chairman of the Starbright Foundation. The Foundation is an initiative to bring together people from disparate professions for the benefit of sick children.

Leading the fundraising campaign is the immensely influential General Norman Schwarzkopf. The Foundation has already reached a quarter of its target of $75 million, allowing Starbright to launch its pilot project, linking together children from seven hospitals around the country. In its current initial phase, it aims to generate feedback from the 350 children currently using Starbright.

Children, in fact, have been in on the development of the games from the beginning, consulting with the producers about preferences for games, characters (dubbed avatars) and graphics. Spielberg himself made a visit to the UCLA Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, sat on the floor and showed children models of plans and sounded them out. Producers have been particularly concerned with girls' views and have adopted more linear, narrative-based stories than the usual male-dominated warrior scenarios.

The second phase will be a clinical study, carried out by Stanford University Medical School and Hospital, of the effectiveness of Starbright World in relieving pain, stress, anxiety and loneliness. Hand in hand with this study will be research looking at the value of Starbright World in terms of self-esteem and feeling in control.

In the area of pain-reduction, Starbright World has developed software for piloting. Much of its impetus is fuelled by a mass of research and anecdotal evidence from doctors as well as from Starlight Express, a small-scale Starbright project, that shows a reduced need for pain relief when a patient is being distracted through entertainment. When Starlight Express Fun Centres, mobile computer units, were wheeled to young patients' beds, they chose to use their self-dosage buttons for pain relief 80 per cent less than when they had no distraction.

Among the other software Starbright projects is a virtual reality helmet currently being developed at UCLA. A Silicon Graphics computer is rigged up to a helmet that is worn by children during short-term, painful procedures such as skin-burn treatments and kidney dialysis for which it is hard to anaesthetise. The software allows the user to steer a pterodactyl through the air by way of a toggle switch.

Another project, at the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, is Ultramind , a program designed to help children fall asleep, based on an aquarium scenario. Users wear thimble monitors on their fingers. As they relax, the goldfish swims towards them, becoming, slowly, a mermaid. But if the child tenses up, the mermaid swims away.

It's all at the cutting edge of technology, which means that the costs run into the mega-millions. So far, corporate sponsors are footing the bills, and Sprint, the telecommunications company, has donated its phone lines. With the connections of people involved in the Foundation Q one friend is actor Robin Williams, who cracked a joke a minute when he went on the network recently - and the "entrepreneurial philanthrophy", as Peter Samuelson puts it, that is driving Starbright on, it looks pretty certain that the Foundation will meet its target. The network can then expand to all hospitals, well- resourced or not, and one day, hopefully, to homes.

HOW STARBRIGHT WORKS Children can play in one of three virtual playgrounds (Cave, Tropical or Sky Zone) or choose to collaborate on building a structure in Building Zone.

They use PC Pals, specially designed Pentium computers, donated by Intel, which incorporate a video camera, microphones and speakers.

The PCs in each hospital are connected to the Starbright server based in Seattle.

Starbright has its own site on the World Wide Web: http:www.starbright.orgindex.html The system runs on virtual 3-D graphics (from Worlds Inc), "UB" networking which is specially designed for high volumes of data (Tandem Computer), special workstations using desktop conferencing (Intel) and high-performance digital telephone lines (Sprint International)

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