Voxel Bay, a virtual reality project created by Findlay native Jeremy Patterson, allows children with hemophilia to immerse themselves in an underwater world of pirates, dragons and penguins. The project has earned national attention and was a finalist for the Interactive Innovation Award at the SXSW Festival. (Photo provided by Nationwide Children’s Hospital)

Staff Writer

Children with hemophilia need to get stuck with needles constantly to get infusions — a scary experience. Now, thanks to the work of a Findlay native, they can escape their anxiety by immersing themselves in a world of pirates, dragons and penguins.

Voxel Bay, a virtual reality project, was developed by a team led by Dr. Amy Dunn, director of hematology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Jeremy Patterson, lead of user experience technology, research and development at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Patterson is a Findlay High School graduate.

Many of the children with bleeding disorders Dunn cares for have challenging and burdensome medical treatment, often intravenous infusions several times a week, she said.

“And it’s a lifelong treatment for them,” she said.

A lot of children and their families have a great deal of anxiety, and may avoid needed treatment because of it, she said.

Sure, no one likes needles, but “for these kids it goes beyond that,” Patterson said. Some of the children actually cannot get the infusions because of this, and have to have ports put in, which requires minor surgery, a more complicated and more expensive undertaking.

There’s no other medical treatment for these illnesses, and getting stuck with needles multiple times a week can affect the children’s attitude toward medical care, Dunn said.
She started talking with Patterson about it and they decided — “a little naively” — that virtual reality would be an easy way to address their fear. The pair quickly learned there was no existing virtual reality platform designed for pediatric patients.

Patterson said virtual reality has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, but it hadn’t been targeted toward children.

He studied computer science and engineering before graduating from The Ohio State University with a fine arts degree. His background includes working on games, many of them educational in nature. He was originally hired to build apps for Nationwide. Dunn said having him and his team embedded in the hospital means she has access to his technical expertise and he to her clinical expertise.

Findlay native Jeremy Patterson answers questions about the Voxel Bay program at SXSW. (Photo provided by Nationwide Children’s Hospital)

Now, when a child comes to Dunn’s clinic, he or she is told about the games and then is given a headset — the current version looks like a dragon, a character from the game. In the world of Voxel Bay, the children are on a boat and can just sail from one island to another, or, upon docking at an island, can choose to play a game.

“There’s one where they steal pirate treasure,” Patterson said.

And there’s one where they fly around on the back of a dragon.

One of the first hurdles to overcome is that the game had to be designed so children could play without using their hands.

Also, “The game has to be legitimately fun” if you want children to play, Patterson said.

So he got creative. For example, there is one game the children get to when they reach Ice Island. A baby penguin is lost, separated from its family. The children can look at water, using their eyes to pick it up and draw ice bridges.

Patterson said others have told him he’s lucky that he gets to work on fun projects. But while the game is fun when you’re the one playing it, making it happen is the hardest project he has ever done. Still, Dunn said, it was a labor of love. Her patients offered feedback as the game was being developed.

The response has been good. Some children “don’t want to stop playing,” she said. Parents love it, too. Dunn said one patient in particular had been “terrified” of infusions and had to have a port put in, but has now been able to transition back to the previous approach thanks to the game.

Patterson, 40, said he “can’t put into words” the feeling of seeing a child come into the clinic laughing, instead of being upset and crying.

“It’s amazing to be a part of that,” he said.

Dunn said her clinic is a busy place, with a lot of patients and health care providers coming in and out. So another challenge is they wanted to introduce the game without creating disruptions in giving treatment. If it “completely derails your clinic,” no one will use the game, she said. But they found that it works well in a busy clinic, and the flow of people and work remains the same.

So many people have had bad experiences with medical care, Dunn said. And when patients are scared all the time, it also creates stress for the health care providers, especially the nurses who must commit time and emotional energy to helping them overcome this. So she said this is designed to make their jobs easier, and to be easy to do — a nurse just needs about five minutes of instruction to learn how to get children sailing on Voxel Bay.

Voxel Bay was a finalist for the Interactive Innovation Award in the area of health, med and biotech at the internationally recognized SXSW Festival.

A clinical trial was completed in December. Eventually, Dunn said they’re hoping to spread it to other patient groups, both at Nationwide and elsewhere.

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