When RJ Sampson was young, he spent a lot of time in the hospital. There was no single cause, but it seemed like a string of odd health concerns saw him admitted more often than most kids – for example, at age 3 he had eye surgery and drains in ears. Then at 8 there was tonsil and adenoids removal. Then there was a 5-day hospital stint for a kidney removal, plus all the tests that go along with that. During this time, when he was about 10 years old, RJ started programming. For RJ, working with computers was always about transporting himself to a different place, a place of excitement, joy and achievement.
One day he was scrolling through Reddit and happened to click on a video posted by a dad named Jeff. In the video, Jeff’s son, Bobby, was playing a virtual reality game called EVE: Valykie. In the “real world” Bobby, who has cerebral palsy, was turning left and right to control the game with the Oculus virtual reality headset. In Bobby’s world, he was zipping between asteroids in the far reaches of space. On the video, you can hear him saying, “I’m winning! I’m winning!”
“That’s how this whole thing was born,” says RJ. That day, he started his therapeutic virtual reality nonprofit, VR Kids, with the goal of bringing virtual reality to kids in the hospital – kids just like Bobby and like RJ himself had been, who may not be able to physically leave the hospital or their room or their bed, but in their minds could fly past asteroids.
RJ spent hundreds of hours developing a virtual reality experience specifically for kids in the hospital, catching an hour here and an hour there during evenings and weekends while working full-time for an airline’s online marketing department in Las Vegas. The result is his virtual reality experience, Journey to the Big Bear Festival. The experience, facilitated by RJ’s volunteers, is in three hospitals in Las Vegas and with his modest GoFundMe campaign is poised to help more kids in more cities across the country.
RJ describes the impact of his work:
“There was a boy, Dominick, we saw recently. When we stopped by his room, he could barly walk. He kind of hobbled to the chair where he could put on the headset. He was so thin and so weak. At first, he wasn’t really talking at all. We put him through the experience and then there’s a post-experience questionnaire. When we took off the headset, he was like a different kid. He was talking, answering our questions, excited like any other kid. The nurse was looking at him; his mom was looking him. The experience had brought him back to the kid he was before the hospital,” RJ says.
Virtual reality for kids in the hospital sounds like an easy escape – you can imagine young patients around the country with headsets and laptops – but RJ says it’s not so simple.
“We needed something customizable,” RJ says. Because hospitalized kids may have different capabilities and different limitations – “for example, some kids might already by nauseous or dizzy,” RJ explains – off-the-shelf games might not work the way they’re intended and, in fact, could be scary or too hard to control. RJ’s Journey to the Big Bear Festival starts with the character “Teddy” telling the player that there is a festival tonight. He opens up a portal and the journey begins, during which Teddy turns another character, Tessa, into different animals. One of the settings turns the experience into what RJ describes as a “magic carpet ride” – a journey that kids can simply enjoy. Other settings amplify the interactions, letting kids engage with their virtual journey.
“At first they’re mind-blown for a second. The younger they are, the more amazed. Kids will lift up the headset and look around, like they don’t understand how they can be in two places at once,” RJ says. Then, he says, kids tend to accept the experience as a kind of immersive amusement park ride.
“I feel like these kids get transported somewhere else,” RJ says. “The idea is to get them thinking about something not related to heir health. It’s an escape – it’s an escape everybody can have. They kind of forget about the hospital and what’s going on with them and the test or procedure they have to do later that day. They kind of forget they’re a sick kid in the hospital.”
RJ continues to develop his virtual reality experience, adding to the aspects that kids like and revising the ones that aren’t as successful. He hopes to connect with more volunteers and be able to purchase another Oculus and laptop so that he can offer the VR Kids experience at more hospitals. But most of all, RJ wants to transport more kids, showing them a world of wonder and joy beyond the hospital walls.
“You see the difference – it’s just amazing. Inside virtual reality, they’re back – back to who they used to be before the hospital,” says RJ.