VR Hearing

Giving Kids Courage to Undergo Medical Testing Through a Virtual World

What often makes games so powerful are their ability to bring out emotion in us. They can elicit in us feelings of joy, curiosity, and courage. Courage in particular is an essential and central game experience. That quick burst of bravery as you face a new world is what sticks with you long after you stop playing. VR Hearing is a project co-designed with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to help bring that feeling of courage to children as they go undergo medical testing.

Listening to the Voices

Every year, there are children who visit Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for help with their hearing. The first step is always the same - test the child to better understand their hearing levels.

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Yet this process can be intimidating, especially for a kid. Each child is asked to sit in a dark room by themselves and listen for voices. They’ll hear random sentences read to them in an adult’s voice. As it speaks, other voices will call out in babbles and gibberish, trying to drown it out. As all of this happens the child has one task - repeat the sentences that you hear.

This test is a tried and true way to assess a child’s hearing ability, but it is overwhelming for them to say the least. This environment can be isolating and intimidating and it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on. Not only can this be stressful, a child’s reaction to this can impact the accuracy of their results and their ability to perform on the test.

Making It Fun and Familiar

When Cincinnati Children’s Hospital approached us they had one goal - take this scary and new experience for kids and make it into one that’s novel, and fun. As game designers we know that with the right context an otherwise scary challenge can be exciting and empowering. We began to consider ways we could add some meaning, vibrance, and fantasticalness to this test to make it a positive experience for children.

To make this less scary, we had to think through ways to make the experience approachable to a child. First, we knew that we had to give a face to the voices. We came up with the design of friendly, monster-like creatures. They look safe and silly, and with monsters it makes sense for their voice to be a little weird or funny. Immediately, we could see a difference.

Next, we wanted to approach how overwhelming the experience was to the child by adding some familiarity to the environment. Monsters can be silly and fun, but you won’t feel brave around them unless you feel like you’re in an environment where you’re comfortable and powerful. Anyone who’s spent some time with kids know that talking over each other, loud sounds, and lots of people can be fun. The perfect setting of this for us was a birthday party. Parties can make chaos seem normal and familiar, and make silliness and surprise feel comfortable. To capture this we designed a light and bright monster party room for kids to  virtually visit while they do their testing.

Using virtual reality as out base, we blocked out a tree-house during a party with bunting, plant life, and series of silly little monsters that kids will see when they put on the headset for testing. Meanwhile, using the advanced hardware of the Oculus, we designed a way to simulate the same sound environment needed to accurately assess the child’s hearing.

The Result

In the next few months we’ll be finishing this project, with the hope that when children come in for testing they’ll have a new exciting challenge to conquer. They’ll be able to focus on helping talk to the monsters at the monster party and will be immersed in an exciting world rather than afraid. With this playful and cute context that feels familiar, children will be able to perform for more accurate hearing results, while avoiding the stress they might’ve encountered in the past.


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