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Game kiosk eases pain of young ER patients

Sammi Ryan giggled as she watched the pink dragon, which she had digitally painted with her fingertips, bounce across the screen while an animated green dog chased a purple cat with a vacuum cleaner hose.

The "magic coloring book" game helped Sammi, 14, to forget about her stomach pain as she waited for results of gallbladder tests in the emergency room at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

"This is fun," said Ryan, of Mt. Lebanon, while she and her brother, Joey, 10, played with the touch-screen video game kiosk installed this summer in the ER waiting room.

A team of graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center invented the games and built the kiosk as part of Project ER, a semester-long school project to make it less stressful for the 60,000 children who visit the hospital's emergency room each year.

"The goal was to transform the patient experience using technology for education and entertainment," said the team's academic adviser, Jessica Trybus, edutainment director at the technology center and CEO of Downtown virtual training company Etcetera Edutainment Inc.

Etcetera is working with Children's Hospital as it prepares to move to Lawrenceville in 2008, to identify ways that technology can improve quality of life for patients and their families and bring them a sense of normalcy in stressful situations.

This is especially important in an age when children spend hours playing video games, using computers and watching movies, said Eric Hess, assistant to the CEO at Children's Hospital.

"We're always trying to think of ways to make the hospital experience more exciting and cool and interactive," Hess said.

Future projects could include installing patient entertainment systems with Internet access and on-demand movies like those found in hotel rooms, Hess said.

The ER game kiosk is a first step in that direction.

"It's so cool when the kids first press the play button, and their eyes light up," said CMU student Phil Light, 25, of Shadyside, the project's computer programmer. "It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, it's a good, squishy feeling."

Light and fellow students Fred Gallart, 23, of Bloomfield, Patrick Mittereder, 25, of Bloomfield, and John DeRigge, 27, of Shadyside, recognized that the waiting room's broken video-game console and bin of outdated toys weren't doing enough to help kids pass the time.

The fiberglass kiosk developed by California-based Arc Design is durable, easy to clean and entices children with its space-age design. The flat-panel computer screen has logged more than 1 million "touches" since late July.

The university and Children's Hospital invested about $25,000 in the project, which has attracted the attention of game designers nationwide, said Mittereder, who hopes to start a company that brings kiosks to other hospitals and doctor's offices.

"We're all artists and programmers, but the next step is to take this into the business domain," he said. "We want to make this technology available to anyone who wants it."

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