It lives in Boston, but was built at UConn. Boston Children’s Hospital’s recently installed Interactive Media Wall is an immense, high-tech, engagingly interactive product of the University of Connecticut’s Digital Media and Design program – a collaboration of students and faculty that is bringing smiles to children and families who encounter the massive 30-foot wall in the facility’s reconstructed lobby. For a team of animators accustomed to designing for screens a few inches across, the task of designing a scene three stories high was daunting – but a challenge they took on energetically. The electronic wall consists of a large high-definition video screen, and a series of cameras and sensors that observe the presence and movement of people in the space below it, allowing people entering the space to control what appears on the screen. It can be a powerful experience, for children and adults, as their movement defines the action on screen.
Rather than just showing a pretty picture, the wall hopes to offer some therapeutic benefit to the children who interact with it, in support of the mission of the hospital, which is widely considered one of the best pediatric hospitals in the world.
“The idea was to empower emotionally and physically challenged children to take control of something in their life, at a time when things were spinning out of control,” Tim Hunter, Department Head of Digital Media & Design and Director of the Digital Media Center told UConn Today.
How did a major healthcare facility in Boston connect with Connecticut’s flagship university for the project?
Prior to joining UConn’s faculty in 2007, Hunter spent 25 years developing and producing national and international design projects through his New York City based company. His areas of expertise are in digital animation design & production, digital media design & production, lighting design, scenic design and video projection design.
Through that firm, he had worked for many years with Boston-based Elkus/Manfredi Architects, which in turn worked with Boston Children’s Hospital on various projects. When the project to renovate the facility’s lobby came along, the architects suggested that hospital leadership contact Hunter to see what he would envision as a centerpiece, interactive experience.
It was a good match. Initial work began on the project at UConn in the fall of 2011, accelerating during the spring 2012 semester. Plans called for the UConn Digital Media Center faculty and students to develop a unique imaging and sensing system that would be controlled by guests of the hospital as they traveled through the lobby. The work was completed in mid-November 2014, and has been well-received by patients, visitors and staff, earning a not-to-be-missed following.
The UConn team drew on the expertise of faculty members from a broad range of disciplines. Experts in child psychology, in human behavior, and in several disciplines of computer science and engineering contributed to the development of the installation.
That kind of collaboration was critical to the success of the wall, says Hunter, even though such projects are not usually developed at an academic institution. “A university is not the first place you would look for something like this,” said the industry veteran-turned-educator.
Among the students participating in the project were William Pritchard, interaction design and project management; Somaiyeh Ghaffarnia, animation and character development; Sean Dexter, 3D animation; Kevin Richetelli, 2D animation; Samantha Menza, game design; Tom Lee, game design and music composition; and Tiffany Hoang, game design. Prtichard and Ghaffarnia began working on the project as undergrads and continued while pursuing their graduate degrees. The other students were undergrads.
UConn faculty involved in the project, along with Hunter, were Samantha Olschan, animation and character development; Mike Vertefeuille, technology and installation; and Zsolt Palatinus, data mathematician. Also participating were staff member Michael Toomey, interaction design and project management, and CHIP members Tim Gifford and Christian Wanamaker, engineering and coding.
There may be more to come. UConn’s Digital Design department – with students in Storrs and Stamford - and Boston Children’s Hospital now have an ongoing relationship, with plans for UConn to develop new interactive experiences for the next five years.