Enter the Magic Room: Immersive technology for Vancouver's sick kids

Find out what a virtual rodent can teach us about user interface, and how the weird future of smart spaces may have started with Tupac.

Woody the Beaver
Woody the Beaver
Woody the Beaver and one of his human friends. (Photos by Jordan Yerman)

The furriest feature of Vancouver's tech scene

When the beaver told me he’d show me some magic, I knew that this would not be an ordinary evening. A grinning holographic woodland animal was demonstrating technology whose implications make the recent Apple Watch announcement seem underwhelming. The future, you'll see, is far more weird.

I was standing in a next-generation playroom for the younger patients at BC Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Being a profoundly sick child means agonizing pain, gut-churning discomfort, and purgatorial waits. Let’s not forget the roller-coaster ride of good news followed by bad. Kids want to stop being patients and get back to the business of being kids.

Perhaps a simple magic trick is just what the doctor ordered. The trick in this case is a three-dimensional holographic beaver named Woody.

Woody the Beaver
Woody the Beaver (rear view).

Woody lives in the Magic Room, a play area in the newly-opened Ronald McDonald House next to BC Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Woody is a 3D projected image, which means that he appears to float in the air like Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” movie.

"Dude, that's your sister."
Still from 'Star Wars', 1977. Fuhgeddaboudit, Luke.

Woody was created by H+ Technology, a Vancouver-based company founded two years ago by CEO Vincent Yang, CFO Yamin Li, and CTO Dhruv Adhia. The trio completed a Master's in Digital Media through a joint program run by UBC, BCIT, SFU & Emily Carr.

Old-school, new-school

Woody is based on a 19th-Century parlour trick called Pepper’s Ghost. Basically, the trick works by projecting an image onto a sheet of perfectly-clear glass, to create a 3D effect on a 2D surface.

Dr. Dre used it at the 2012 Coachella Festival to raise Tupac Shakur from the dead, even if just to perform “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”.

This year, a spectral Michael Jackson performed “Slave to the Rhythm” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

Far less creepy is an anthropomorphic beaver frolicking in an enchanted forest.

The room is alive

Kids (and adults) can bring Woody stuffed toys hidden throughout the Magic Room: RFID tags in some of the toys cause Woody to perform certain actions, or the room itself to change. Give Woody an apple and he'll eat it. Give him a cloud and a rainstorm sets in. Give him a unicorn and a mythical white horse will race across the walls.

 

Andrew Jackson, Marketing Director for H+, described Woody’s world as Phase One, which establishes proof of concept and the building blocks for richer experiences.

Andrew Jackson, H+ Technologies
Andrew Jackson in beaver disguise.

“At this moment, the interaction is kind of simple. [...] We can polish it more and improve it some more,” Jackson said, “but it just shows what can be done.”

At the moment, the projected environment of the Magic Room covers 270 degrees, and Phase Two will see 360-degree immersion in the virtual forest. Eventually Woody will be able to soar through outer space or dive deep into the ocean, bringing the kids with him.

The walls themselves could also come alive as touch interfaces, so that the boundary between the kids and Woody’s world effectively disappears. The key is human behavior recognition, says Jackson: the sensors which tell Woody what his human friends are doing could also tell the environment where in the room people are congregating.

The Magic Room can then send virtual animals their way to play, said Jackson: “It’s almost like the room has some sort of intelligence.”

A more spare, slightly less kid-friendly version of this can be seen in Lost in the Memory Palace, currently running at the Vancouver Art Gallery: at one stage, you create a spooky symphony simply by walking through a dimly-lit room.

Me and the beaver

While getting upstaged by a small grinning beaver, Vincent Yang said, “It’s very simple from the outside, but inside it’s very complicated.”

The purpose, said Yang, “is to bring some excitement, some joy for a moment for kids who are suffering from an illness.” Woody, said Yang, is a “virtual-reality-style” object: four mirrors showing different projections create the full-body-beaver effect: you can walk around him and his presence is constant. That was not the case with either Tupac or Michael Jackson.

Woody is supported by the projections on the walls, which show an ever-changing forest. Bringing objects to Woody will not only affect his behaviour, but the behaviour of the room itself.

Never mind smart watches or tablets or even VR headsets –– Dhruv Adhia said that their goal was to link the digital world and the physical world: “We believe in device-free [user interfaces]; we’ve always believed in device-free.”

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