Local company develops game to help children cope with treatment

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 9:46am

With Pokemon Go's explosive popularity, augmented reality has recently been brought to the forefront of news. However, Niantic — the company that produced Pokemon Go — is neither the first nor the only company to successfully market the technology. A local startup company, ALTality, is exploring ways to utilize augmented reality to aid patients in the hospital setting.

Augmented reality is an enhanced version of reality produced by technology’s adding of a digital layer to the real, physical world. Ann Arbor based tech startup ALTality’s first product, Spellbound, is a mobile app used in hospitals to distract children from scary or painful moments by turning books into engrossing multidimensional adventures by using the camera on a smartphone or a tablet.

“Basically, you hold up your phone screen to a children’s book and the pictures on the pages come to 3D life and move around like a Pokemon moving around on your screen,” Bob Miller, Lambert, Edwards & Associates Public Relations associate on behalf of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, said.

Miller said some of the game’s benefits include increasing compliance with treatment and reducing trauma for the children.

Christina York, CEO and co-founder of ALTality, said both parents and children have had incredibly positive responses to Spellbound. The game, currently helping the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital patients every day, started out as an idea that came to her while reading in bed one night. York, an avid reader, said the idea came to her after having to pull out her iPad to search for the difference between two boats described in her book.

“Why can’t I just hold the device up to the book and have it recognize what I’m looking at?” York said.

York then participated in the Detroit Startup Weekend with her idea for ALTality, then called MagicBook. York was able to build a team, pitch the idea and win the competition. York’s team then collaborated with Ann Arbor SPARK, a local organization dedicated to economic development whose bootcamp helped launch the company to its current standing today. 

When asked about the effect of Pokemon Go has had on her company, York was almost entirely positive.

Pokemon Go is helping augmented reality in general because it exposes it in a way that is fun and non-threatening and cool,” she said. “It helps people envision the possibilities of the technology.”

York said that, while the game helps kids get up and moving, which is important for being healthy for treatment, it is not without problems.

“The downside is that the game has patients wandering into areas they aren’t supposed to be in,” York said.

While the company has already made its mark,  with its pilot project having 25 life specialists — pediatric specialists who help children cope with their illnesses — utilize Spellbound to help their patients at Mott, ALTality plans to further expand within the hospital network.

The company has had many requests to develop a platform to help adults and veterans cope with their sometimes frightening visits to the hospital. Whether it be post-traumatic stress disorder or the loss of a limb, York said, augmented reality can be an incredible mechanism to help veterans cope with their new reality after coming home.

York said the company eventually hopes to create a platform in which kids, therapists and parents alike can create their own augmented reality experiences. York described her vision as something similar to Pinterest but using augmented reality. She said she envisions a platform in which kids can discover what would happen if they mixed two storylines together or if they wanted to put themselves in the story.

She added that ALTality also plans to expand to homes and schools and keep up with the rapidly advancing technology, either continuing in the direction they are headed or expanding further into developing an app that is compatible with headsets or wearables such as activity trackers. 

 

Editor's note: a previous version of this article said Miller was a spokesperson for MEDC, not a PR associate for Lambert, Edwards & Associates