How Starlight Xperience Turns Ailing Kids into Astro-Mechanics

Starlight’s CEO shares his thoughts on the ambitious new project that’s bringing technology, comfort, and hope to hospitalized children around the United States.

You can almost smell the stink of oil baths and grease in the air as BB-8 arrives, beeping plaintively as he plops down on the repair bay platform. As a technician aboard General Leia Organa’s ship, the Resistance is counting on you to keep the most essential astromechs in working order and help fix those who have fallen into disrepair.

For the last year, ILMxLAB’s VR experience Star Wars: Droid Repair Bay – Astro-Mechanic for the Resistance has been transporting fans to a galaxy far, far away through immersive virtual reality. Now it’s part of an innovative new platform that’s giving hospitalized children the chance to help a one-of-a-kind orange and white droid in need without ever leaving their beds.

Chris Helfrich speaks at an event to launch 'Starlight Xperience.'

Recently, Starlight Children’s Foundation announced Starlight Xperience, the ambitious and groundbreaking new technology program that brings comfort to seriously ill children through virtual reality headsets, both as a reprieve from the boredom of being cooped up in the hospital and a form of “distraction therapy,” says Chris Helfrich, CEO of Starlight Children’s Foundation. “Happy kids heal faster. That’s why we do what we do,” Helfrich says. “What inspired it was the question that we ask ourselves everyday, which is: How can we make the hospital experience for seriously ill children better? How can we bring joy and excitement to kids in this otherwise really difficult time?”

Starlight Gowns

The foundation’s noble efforts to bring comfort and joy to children in hospitals runs the gamut from low-tech ideas to improve outdated essentials to cutting-edge technology, specially modifying commercially available platforms to meet strict infection safety protocols.

Samples of Starlight Gowns are shown.

About two years ago, the organization launched Starlight Gowns, an innovative redesign of hospital-issue robes that incorporates costumes from Star Wars characters including Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and R2-D2. “It’s our effort to improve the hospital experience by turning a source of misery for a child — an old, uncomfortable hospital gown that hasn’t been redesigned in any significant way in over 100 years — and turn it into a source of joy for a child,” Helfrich says. The line offers a softer, more comfortable alternative, “like your favorite T-shirt,” that still gives physicians and other medical professionals the access needed to perform tests and procedures. “They tie down the side instead of down the middle of the back so there’s good privacy and your butt’s not hanging out,” Helfrich adds.

The gowns can also be a source of empowerment, and a way for children to express their individuality. “We’ve been able to transform these kids into their favorite Star Wars characters,” Helfrich says.

‘Healers in the world of Star Wars’

This summer, a pilot program for Starlight Xperience was launched and tested at five children’s hospitals: Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford; Children’s Hospital Colorado; Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center; Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minn.; and Texas Children’s Hospital. The headsets include several different pre-loaded experiences, games, and puzzles, including Droid Repair Bay. “For us, it was an idea that was rooted in our longstanding commitment to make the hospital experience as fun and entertaining as possible,” Helfrich says.

BB-8 opens up for repairs.

“We know that VR has the potential to transport us to other worlds and establish deep and intimate connections with characters, but Droid Repair Bay, in particular, had a clear and obvious alignment with the Starlight Children’s Foundation program,” adds ILMxLAB’s Vicki Dobbs Beck. “In the experience, your mission is to assist the Droid Doctor and nurse droids in repairing injured or malfunctioning droids, so they can return to their posts and continue supporting the efforts of the Resistance. It was a unique and empowering opportunity for children in the hospital — one in which those seeking healing in the real world become the healers in the world of Star Wars.”

“If you have a child in the hospital it can often be a sad and scary and anxiety-provoking time and so being able to prevent or stop a child’s fear or anxiety and replace it with a smile has real positive consequences,” Helfrich adds. “Our programs, first and foremost, are designed to bring happiness to sick kids. I think the medical benefits from that are fantastic.”

The headsets can be used as a reprieve from boredom, a reward for being brave during a long day of tests, therapy, and procedures, or even a way to distract from scary or painful experiences as they transpire.

“Whether it’s having their port accessed, their blood drawn, or burn bandages changed, we’ve seen this program being used effectively to reduce fear and anxiety during those often painful procedures,” Helfrich says. “[A child] can get through a procedure just by being immersed in a headset and he or she can go snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef or on a trip to the Eiffel Tower.” Or by joining the Resistance and becoming a part of the Star Wars story.

“The deeply immersive nature of VR is truly transportive, and, as such, has the potential to completely absorb you in the richness of another world, and engage you with the opportunity to explore and discover,” Dobbs Beck adds. “Well-crafted experiences can also be multi-sensory — enchanting you through what you see, hear and feel.”

Children meet BB-8 at the Starlight Children's Foundation event to launch 'Starlight Xperience.'

2,000 units

Starlight plans to distribute about 1,000 of the first Starlight Xperience units by the end of 2018, with the hopes of at least doubling the number of headsets in use next year, reaching children in over 200 different hospitals by the end of 2019. “All kids deserve to experience all of the magic and wonder of childhood,” Helfrich says. The programs have also proven effective for entire families, including parents and siblings. “For parents especially, the joy it brings parents to see a smile on their child’s face as he or she battles a serious illness or goes through a serious injury, it’s important.”

Starlight Xperience launched last month in collaboration with Star Wars: Force for Change, one of the program’s founding sponsors, Lucasfilm, and The Walt Disney Company.

“We believe Starlight Xperience has the potential to transform the hospital experience for millions of seriously ill children and their families,” says Helfrich, making children in need fell more powerful than they could have possibly imagined.

Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver what you love most about Star Wars!

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