Developing a digital play kit to help children undertake an MRI

Do you ever wonder what it feels like to have an MRI scan?

Perhaps you have already had an MRI and are familiar with the need to remain very still for up to an hour or more, as well as how noisy the scanners are. These are two reasons that 58% of MRIs on 5–10 year olds are performed under General Aesthetic. Figures for children younger than 5 years are harder to calculate. However, in the UK around 60,000 MRI exams are carried out on 4–10 year old’s annually.

UK-based research firm and digital studio Dubit has been awarded prestigious Innovate UK funding to expand into the area of gaming for child health by developing a digital play kit to prepare children for undergoing an MRI.

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Preparing children for an MRI dramatically reduces the need for medication. Currently this is done with hospital play specialists, mock scanners or other aids all of which are expensive and in sparse supply.

As a result over the next 18 months, in my Role as both a Senior Research Manager for Dubit and a Senior Tutor in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art, I will lead a team that includes the Sheffield Children’s Hospital, the Royal College of Art, the University of Sheffield (Penny Curtis) and the Glasgow School of Art (Steve Love) to bring research data to the interactive team at Dubit who will produce the play kit.

Why the work is needed

General anaesthetics (GA) are both costly and risky to child health but in the absence of high quality, readily available low-cost resources to support children so that they can tolerate an MRI, GAs are routinely used in order to avoid failure of the procedure or low quality images.

Without preparation children are often unable to cooperate fully during MRI, when they need to keep still for prolonged periods within a confined space and be exposed to loud noises. Many children therefore receive a GA. In Sheffield Children’s Hospital, 53% of MRIs are carried out under GA: rates may be even higher in adult units, where the majority of children are imaged.

How the product is innovative

Innovation will be achieved by producing the first digital MRI preparation that:

1. uses cutting-edge gaming technology to create a mixed reality experience that foregrounds design expertise in digital play. It will create a play-centred digital experience that crosses multiple platforms: physical play, augmented and virtual reality, thus linking to research that has shown that play is the best way for children to make sense of the world and their experiences.

2. creates the best fit experience for each digital platform. This responds to Dubit’s Global trends data that shows children are connoisseurs of narrative experience across different digital platforms and choose to engage (or not) based on the quality of the experience in the specific platform it is created for.

3. offers a resource for use at all stages of the patient experience, as well as in home and clinical settings.

4. is designed to be a shared experience between the child and their caregiver, thus responding to clinical findings that children are less anxious if their parents are.

The proposal is also innovative in the constitution of the project team. To date current market products have been largely medically defined. Switching the collaboration so that the lead business is an expert in gaming, which specialises in digital experiences for children, will enable us to create a product that has play experience at its heart, while also integrating essential clinical information. In this way the product will maximise opportunities to engage children in vital preparation needed to undergo an MRI without a GA.

Play & Health

The digital play kit will contain different types of play:

Physical : This takes onthe form of building and making with craft materials. In a recent study looking at children’s engagement with VR in Makerspaces (MakEY) the team has found how the opportunity to create with physical materials is now more exotic than digital play for younger children and therefore can engage children in new ways. Crossover between digital play and physical making is also evident in new forms of digital play such as the Nintendo Switch Labo:

Augmented Reality: Inclusion of AR builds on insights gained from the ‘Tech and Play’ report (TAP) that illustrated the ways in which children like to combine physical toys and environments with digital worlds or enhancements.

Virtual Reality: This builds on insights gained from Dubit’s ‘Children and Virtual Reality’ study (CVR) that has shown how the embodying nature of the medium can allow children to explore digital content in new ways.

The product will therefore take advantage of the fact that play has been documented as an effective way to promote health and wellbeing by allowing children to make sense of their experiences, express fear, normalise unusual events and thus reduce anxieties.

If you are interested in learning more please get in touch.



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Dylan Yamada-Rice

Senior Tutor in Information Experience Design, Royal College of Art & Senior Research Manager, Dubit.