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Comforting hospital walls

Surprising art at Helsinki’s New Children’s Hospital turns thoughts away from illness and brings joy both to the children and their families.
Helsingin Uuden lastensairaalan virtuaaliakvaario. Kuva: Sourya Sen.
The virtual aquarium of Helsinki's New Children's Hospital. Photo: Sourya Sen.

A serious little girl draws at the corner table, while a considerably bigger boy appears to be doing the same on the other side of the café. Both are colouring in fish with great concentration.

Turn your eyes from the kids in the café to the open ground floor space, and it is impossible not to notice the almost five-metre-high virtual aquarium in the centre of the lobby. Right now, fish named by at least visitors Noel, Esra and Nea are happily swimming around the screen surrounded by other animated individuals.

The café with the green floor is in Helsinki, on the second floor of the New Children’s Hospital. We’re in the Jungle, as each floor of this building has a name and a corresponding visual theme and style that is complemented by a distinct audio environment. The Jungle is bursting with colours and surprises.

  • “Our little one now always leaves with enthusiasm for a day at the hospital, despite a long and difficult history of illness. The environment is so stimulating and exciting that it makes for a genuinely impressive experience for a small child.” Helsinki mum

Sounds of Indonesia

After progressing along the Jungle’s grass-coloured corridors, I’m surprised to suddenly hear exotic whispers and bird song. One of the speakers supplying the hospital’s audio environment is softly playing the sounds of shuffling palm leaves and geckos.

Sixty speakers have been placed around the hospital. Each floor has its own soundscape, which is the responsibility of an Aalto University team headed by Lecturer Antti Ikonen.

You might hear, for example, authentic tropical forest sounds recorded by a student of the Sound in New Media master’s programme while on holiday in Indonesia. On the Sea floor, your ears can catch the calls of seabirds from Harakka Island, while the vicinity of the ground floor’s aquariums is surrounded by the soothing sounds of waves gently hitting a rocky shore.

The sounds are audible on small areas of each floor, surprising the hearer. A sound engine coded by students uses an algorithm to mix the ingredients into an audio texture that is always a little bit unique. Just like in real life, the sounds are never replayed in exactly the same form, nor are the sounds of the Star, Space or Mountain floors replayed identically, they always reform as if popping through a kaleidoscope.

  • “Heavy treatments no longer make my child as frightened as before. Now she knows that, after the treatments are done, she’ll get back to wonder at the corridors.” Mum of two-year-old

That Helsinki’s New Children’s Hospital has its own, globally unique, soundscape, is not a case of using technology for the sake of technology. The hospital focuses on good, high-quality and safe treatment, in addition to providing a positive patient experience. Sounds are one way with which the minds of the children and their families can be directed towards pleasant things, pushing the emotions caused by illness more to the back.

A mother from Helsinki with long experience of vising the Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Castle describes the soundscape of the New Children’s Hospital as calming.

“Some might think that sounds are a minor detail. But when I think of my visits to the earlier facilities, with their beeping equipment, children crying and overall negative sounds, the new hospital is really soothing to be in. After all, the parents’ emotions are often quite frayed at the hospital, too.”

Another mother speaks of how much her child has taken to the lifts: “My visually impaired and learning-disabled kid has very much noticed the sounds in the lifts! Combined with a child’s burning passion for elevators in general, they have made these lifts the best place in the entire hospital.”

The family has in fact downloaded a player that enables them to play the same sounds on their mobile devices at home.

  • “The walls of the hospital are covered with beautiful paintings and slogans that give comfort to me, too.” Mum of special-needs child

Follow the bunny

Arttu Raute knows that hospital visits involve waiting. Sometimes you wait just five minutes to get treatment, an examination or go for an operation, but you might also be there for hours or overnight. He still remembers how, as a five-year-old, he sat in the lobby of the Children’s Hospital killing time staring at a clock. Every hour, the number on the clockface would turn, revealing a clown.

The little customers of the New Children’s Hospital have been considered in many ways. Even quite a young child, for example, can manage the signing-in process. Customers are assisted by an on-screen bouncing bunny and can select a personal virtual character when signing in. This personal avatar is displayed on the screens, guiding customers to the next destination.

“Yeah, those trucks and big-eyed animals are fun enough, but they’re no longer my cup of tea,” Arttu Raute says. He’s noticed that bunnies and other such thingies aren’t of much interest to teenage customers.

“Over-12s just fiddle with their phones,” he chuckles. But this 16-year-old has taken his eyes off the phone long enough to notice the size and colours of the virtual aquarium in the lobby, which did impress him. The old clown clock has met its match.

Helsingin Uuden lastensairaalan virtuaaliakvaarion tekijät. Kuva: Antti Ilvessuo.
John Lee, Laura Horton, Jukka Eerikäinen and Sourya Sen designed a virtual aquarium to which children can add fish they themselves have drawn. Photo: Antti Ilvessuo.

Two-dimensional fish

Just under a year ago, student Jukka Eerikäinen received an e-mail seeking a media wall design for a children’s hospital. Soon after, Eerikäinen together with study pals Sourya Sen, Laura Horton and John Lee were bouncing ideas for a virtual aquarium off each other. The quartet are students at Aalto Medialab – in the words of Eerikäinen: right from the thick of the audio-visual scene. 

From the very beginning, it was clear to the team that they weren’t going for photorealism, yet the fish coloured by the user would need to behave like an actual aquarium fish. They wanted to create a happy and fun-looking aquarium, and the webcam used to scan the drawing was also going to be visually pleasing.

One year later, a thrilling scanner box, laser-cut from plywood, awaits children’s drawings in the hospital cafeteria. A drawing is placed at the bottom of the box, a child presses a large blue magic button and, moments later, a just-coloured fish joins the vibrant school already swimming around the huge wall of the lobby.

The aquarium has become such a central and pleasant part of hospital visits that one Helsinki family now sets aside extra time for the colouring.

“If our child doesn’t have time to finish a fish before an appointment, it’s certain that we won’t be leaving the building before the fish is in the aquarium.”

What was, for Eerikäinen, Sen, Horton and Lee, an optional component of their master’s degree studies, is, for many customers of the New Children’s Hospital, the highlight of their visit. This is how the mum of two Helsinki boys describes it:

“Our 7- and 8-year-old fellas were chuffed to see the fish they had coloured in the main lobby’s virtual aquarium. The brothers often ask to see photos of their own fish swimming at the hospital.”

Listen to the hospital's soundscape at newchildrenshospital.aalto.fi

Text: Tiiu Pohjolainen

This article is published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 24 (issuu.com) April 2019.

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