Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality for Child Life Teams

As the SpellBound team talks with child life professionals around the country, we're meeting more and more teams who are trying to weigh the advantages of augmented reality (AR) versus virtual reality (VR) for their work. Which of these cutting-edge technologies are the right choice for a child life team?

Both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are powerful tools that can be tremendously useful in the hospital environment. Like all tools, though, AR and VR are better suited for some jobs than others. VR is a game-changing technology that is doing wonders in the areas of PTSD treatment, pain management, and immersion therapy for phobia treatment. AR has proven highly effective for training and medical education. Both technologies are highly immersive and engaging, and have tremendous potential for further medical uses. But based on my experience working with child life teams, there are some important factors that make AR a more natural fit for the work that child life specialists do.


Virtual reality (left) vs augmented reality (right)

AR fits better into the CLS workflow

AR works on the mobile devices that child life specialists and other hospital staff already carry with them, so it doesn’t require you to purchase, manage, or develop sterilization protocols for new hardware, like headsets. Child life specialists are very busy people with many patients to see, and there's not always time to to grab extra equipment or to be tracking down a $900 headset.

AR supports CLS techniques

Child life teams are always looking for new ways to keep patients from focusing on scary or painful moments in the hospital, and AR is wonderful for this kind of distraction therapy. Most kids (and parents!) have never seen anything like it before, so it's really immersive, engaging, and fun. AR can also be adapted by child life specialists for a lots of different uses. Child life specialists or parents can use the device or the items that trigger the augmented reality experience (cards or books, for example) to shield patients from something that would upset them. Parents can also be encouraged to use AR to provide meaningful support for their child during procedures, for example by using comfort positioning with their child while holding the device for them.

SpellBound User Story: "We were using SpellBound with a child during catheterization. The child was laughing and engaging with the card, and the mother was shocked - she did not expect the procedure to go this well."

AR is accessible to more patients

Because of the completely immersive nature of VR, there are some limitations in how it can be used in the hospital setting. Patients who only have vision in one eye, patients with facial sensitivity or head injury, and patients taking medication that causes nausea or dizziness should not use VR headsets. While hands-free can ultimately be a better experience, AR allows more patients to experience an amazing virtual world through a handheld device that won’t trigger side-effects.

AR is grounded in the real world

While a VR headset cuts the user off from hearing or seeing the child life specialist next to them, AR allows for constant contact between the patient and hospital staff, and doesn't obstruct interaction with the real world. This means that the child can see and hear their therapist at the same time that they're experiencing the magic of a virtual world. And because AR doesn't mask vision, it allows and encourages movement, such as walking, while using it. Child life specialists tell us that AR allows them to expose patients to fearful situations-- like a room full of intimidating machinery--in a safe and mediated way.

SpellBound User Story: "Use the small animal cards [Journey Cards] to place on equipment in the room... having a mini 3D elephant on an infusion pump is a fun way of making things less scary."

AR is a undeniably powerful and versatile tool for child life specialists. There's an important place for both AR and VR in healthcare: both technologies are highly effective at what they do, and both contribute to creating amazing patient experiences. But as always, it's important to use the right tool for the right situation, and the need for child life specialists to be in direct and meaningful contact with their patient is critical. Emotional, human connection is an important part of how child life specialists help their patients heal, and AR allows more of that human element to shine through.