Kids at Seattle’s Harborview Burn Center have found help in a strange new place: SnowWorld, a virtual reality where they glide through icy 3-D canyons, shooting snowballs at snowmen, robots, and penguins. SnowWorld is a computer game, but patients’ cranial scans show that it reduces pain by 50% or more during the excruciating daily process of cleaning their wounds. That number may be hard to believe, but as the game’s creator, Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist and director of the University of Washington’s Virtual Reality Research Center, puts it: “Brains don’t lie.”
SnowWorld has been chosen for the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Triennial Show in December. (“How could ‘design’ be more powerful, transformative, or significant than Hoffman’s work?” asks curator Barbara Bloemink.) Hoffman’s biggest hurdle now is cost–a good virtual-reality helmet can run to $32,000. But long term, the program could not only reduce patients’ suffering but the overall price of their care as well: If burn victims can endure longer daily treatments, they could heal faster and go home sooner.