While you were perhaps working from home or on vacation this week, Price Shaw was saving Seattle from a robot invasion.
Price, a 7-year-old Seattle boy, was the recipient of a personalized Make-A-Wish adventure that included a trip to the top of the Space Needle where he battled VR robots attacking the Seattle Center. This was the first time that the Alaska and Washington chapter of Make-A-Wish created a VR experience for a child.
Price was born with a syndrome that caused his heart to develop unevenly and has required three major surgeries to correct; someday he will need a heart transplant. One of his healthcare providers suggested that his family apply to the program, and Price described his excitement about fighting villains and a fascination with robots.
“This wish came across my desk and I was like, ‘Wow, how are we going to make this one happen?’” said Jeannette Tarcha, vice president of communications and marketing for Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington. “It screamed innovation and technology.”
Tarcha talked to the nonprofit Virtual World Society, which put out the request to its network to see who could help. The Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE), an educational program focused on animation and gaming, stepped up.
A team of AIE students took on the project, first meeting with Price to better understand what he’d like and to give him an initial experience with VR. They talked robots and learned that Price was keen on a battle waged with elementary-school weapons of choice: a sword, shield and dynamite.
AIE student Alaric “Al” Trevers led a group of seven peers on the project, which ran from late January to early July. The students would have normally been working on portfolio projects in anticipation of their spring graduation, but were excited to shift gears.
It was “a good opportunity to make a kid’s dream come true,” Trevers said. “That type of motivation drove us through the entire project, especially working through COVID-19 [shutdowns] and working from home.”
The team kept their cameras on and mics open to make it more collaborative. They built the robots from scratch and used images taken from around the Seattle Center’s International Fountain to make the VR showdown as realistic as possible.
“It was a life changing experience,” Trevers said, “and one I wish I could experience again, almost.”
On Tuesday, Price and his parents Jodie and Ryan and his younger brother went on the Make-A-Wish adventure. Suited up in superhero garb, the itinerary included a visit to the T-Mobile Park to get a clue to his adventure from the Mariners Moose, stops at Seattle Art Museum and the Pike Place Market, and the VR standoff at the Space Needle.
“This is just right up his alley,” Ryan Shaw said. “Going on this journey and the quest just seems so much like him. We couldn’t have asked for it to be a better personalized experience for him.”
The local Make-A-Wish chapter grants around 300-400 wishes a year, and many involve travel, shopping sprees and computer games and toys. In the time of COVID-required social distancing and closures, trips to Hawaii or Disney World that kids often request aren’t readily available. And even under normal circumstances, the children getting wishes can have mobility limitations.
VR could provide rich experiences despite those challenges, Tarcha said. She’s thinking of creating a catalogue of VR options that kids could select from in the future.
“Make-A-Wish is really part of the whole plan of care for patients,” Tarcha said. “Medicine treats the body and Make-A-Wish treats the soul.”
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