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Video Game ‘Healing Spaces’ Wants to Change the Way We Treat Dementia

Among the bombast and cacophony of E3 2018’s West Hall last month, nestled firmly in IndieCade’s line of featured video games, sits a young woman at a table, a seemingly empty display behind her. There’s no gaming console or PC to be found and no flashy trailer playing on repeat, just a simple table with two boxes, two chairs, and a recent college graduate with an ambitious project.

Her name is Gabriela Gomes, the experience she’s brought with her to E3 is “Healing Spaces,” and it’s not like anything else at the industry’s largest trade show.

Healing Spaces” is a “physical, sensory experience for older adults living with dementia and their caregivers” according to its website. Certainly, a far cry from things usually found in and around the E3 show floor, and Gomes herself is well aware. Even when filling out her application for Indiecade’s booth, she wasn’t sure of its placement at the show. “I just thought that it was not something normally seen on the show floor or maybe not a good fit,” Gomes explained. “So I was very surprised when we were invited to showcase, and really just grateful for the opportunity to celebrate this kind of work in such a setting.”

This project — her thesis at the University of Southern California — creates a vivid and natural Forest or Seaside scene on any surface through a smartphone app and a few clever physical items. Scented oils create the olfactory illusion of the scene on screen, while “sensory boxes” containing items normally found in that scenario produce the tactile sensation. The app adds visual and auditory involvement through the selected scene, and any room is instantly transformed into this new space.

One example is the Seaside scene, which displays a sunny beach and clear blue seawater on the screen behind Gomes. The scented oil concoction in the vial on the table smells of sunscreen while crashing waves can be heard through the iPad’s speakers. The Seaside sensory box contains shells and a kinetic sand that feels like sand but doesn’t leave anything on the user’s hands. “We wanted to make this as simple as possible,” Gomes stressed, and the demo was certainly easy to use.

A Personal Connection
The original idea for “Healing Spaces” came from a place many people know all too well: a personal connection with dementia. For Gomes, it was her grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s in her later years that inspired the research which would eventually birth this concept. “I thought ‘it’d be nice to make something I wish I had at that time.’ Back then I had no knowledge of her condition, and no idea how to interact with her.”

She began by researching the interactivity of video games and how it could merge with dementia care, eventually finding information on “multi-sensory environments” or MSEs, which piqued her interest. She took that research to the advisors at the USC School of Gerontology, who connected her to the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Well-Being, and before long she had a pilot test of eight patients trying her idea. She admits the app still needs some testing — she says they’re a few months out of the full clinical trial stage — but “so far it’s been working pretty well. The staff has been using it, and the caregivers really loved it as well.”

Gomes has been kicking around other ideas for Healing Spaces, like an online tutorial for caregivers to create their own sensory boxes or even more landscapes than the two in the demo, but as the pilot as progressed refinement is her main focus. “Seeing our current ‘Healing Spaces’ demo in action at Villa Gardens has been incredibly insightful,” she says, “and I feel there’s still a lot more to explore when it comes to different interaction and play patterns before we think about expanding content-wise.

Piloting “Healing Spaces”
The pilot test, which kicked off at Front Porch’s Villa Gardens Retirement Community in Pasadena, has shown some results according to the personnel. Tanya Mazzolini, manager of the “Summer House memory care unit in the facility, has seen some real growth in the patients using the program, particularly in curtailing adverse behaviors in dementia patients. “When a resident is having behavior issues we will start a Healing Spaces session, and the resident begins to calm down as they focus on the new and calming environment,” Mazzolini told us via e-mail. “Or, if a resident becomes distant we will begin a session and you can see the resident become engaged.”


Megan Hee Soo Park, Field Project Coordinator and Trainer for Front Porch, has been part of the project since the beginning planning stages all the way to the pilot. That ground floor access gave her some idea of what Gomes was putting together, but seeing it in action for the first time is something she’ll never forget; “The face and connections that they had with their surroundings was truly other-worldly, like magic,” she explained. Even more impressive was the project coming from a student’s thesis and not a pharma company, which gave “Healing Spaces” in Park’s eyes a more personal touch.

“We do work with students all the time so we are familiar and are very appreciative of passion and passion projects that are school-based,” Park says. “It was extremely rewarding getting to work with Gabi and help her hone in on what she really wanted to do – whilst of course still managing the expectations of the community and staff. The foundation for which this idea stemmed was genuine and because we had access to Gabi and her brain (and heart), it felt much more personal than if we were working with a company”

The obstacles of advanced tech
The technology portion of “Healing Spaces” is what some would assume to be the most intimidating part of the experience, and Gomes recognized that. She stressed the importance of making something that wasn’t “just a gadget,” but something a caregiver could simply press a button on and have it come to life. When we asked about the potential for “Healing Spaces” in virtual reality, she thought it could work but acknowledged a very important roadblock.

“With the population, we’re working with we’re trying to reduce anxiety, so to put this massive headset on a patient might cause even more confusion and agitation,” Gomes explained. “For me it was more important to ground them in the present reality, getting both patient and caregiver away from the screen and focus on playing and interaction in the physical space.”

So how did a show like E3, which is all about being in front of the screen, appeal to her? Indiecade, as it turns out, made the choice for her. “Each year, Indiecade curates a really diverse set of independent games and experiences for their E3 exhibit – they look at early submissions but also include outside work known by the curators. One day I just woke up and got the news we were selected for their E3 showcase!”

The future of “Healing Spaces”
Where does “Healing Spaces” go from here? Right now it’s focused on dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, but Gomes could see it adapted to other maladies as well. The main idea, as she describes it, was to create a space where “one is given the opportunity to set aside their anxieties, to find the time to reconnect with themselves or their surroundings, either by engaging through different senses or simply relaxing.”

The ultimate goal, however, is to use what “Healing Spaces” provides as a means to explore how technology can be transformative, both physically and emotionally, and use that for the greater good. “Most people tend to think of technology as a tool, but when we were designing this we were thinking about the human using the tool,” Gomes reveals. “We had some design constraints, wanting to make something that was simple and replicable, but it was important to design this for the person in there, to bring them back, to give them respite and comfort through these spaces.”

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