In Spring 2017, Olivia Davis, Assistant Curator for the Montefiore Medical Center Fine Art Program and Collection, approached renowned artist Tom Christopher to create the first virtual reality experience specifically for pediatric cancer patients in the Bronx, NY. The hospital wanted to create a painting that patients “walk through” from their hospital bed, something patients could relate to, something at once familiar (their neighborhood), surprising and magical. Davis immediately thought of Christopher, who is known for his expressionist take on urban life.
NY artist Tom Christopher learned Tilt Brush on commission from Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. Clinicians wanted to see if relatable, localized VR art could relieve pain enough to reduce the need for Opioids in pediatric patients. It’s working.
Founded in 1884, Montefiore Medical Center is a nationally ranked university research and teaching hospital affiliated with the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, NY. The hospital’s mission explicitly includes innovating new treatments while advancing the health of the community it serves.
Christopher is a classically trained artist who spent his career drawing courtroom scenes and cars for commercial clients. In his youth in California, Christopher worked in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square as a pirate with a sketchbook. “When Olivia called me to do a VR project, I jumped at the chance,” Christopher told me in an interview. “Even though I knew nothing about VR, I recognized this was a rare opportunity for an artist in his 60s to discover a new medium. When I finally understood Tilt Brush’s ability to create immersive 3D art I immediately saw its transformative potential. Literally going inside a piece of art is absolutely revolutionary, and something artists have always sought to do. And it’s just in its infancy.”
The stylized, hand-drawn VR experiences that Christopher created are a mix of old-school documentary art, the artist’s singular painting style, and clever uses of the Google’s Tilt Brush creation tool. The pieces don’t start out as VR. Christopher does what he’s always done: draw and explore the subjects through observation and sketches. The sketches are incredibly immersive and complex, comprised of multiple streets and vignettes seen through his expressionist lens. Working in 3D with Tilt Brush, Christopher explained, turns a drawing into a sculpture, which he can manipulate and move around.
“From cave drawings depicting a hunt to renaissance artists bringing viewers into the painting through the discovery of perspective, followed by cubists blowing up the images, artists have tried forever to get the viewer to walk into art. Well, it’s here, now we can finally do it. It will change art forever,” Christopher told me.
“With the advent of new technologies and the influence on younger generations, we saw that we needed to unite art and technology in hopes of enhancing the healing process,” said Davis. “We quickly realized that the power of this technology was stronger than we anticipated and Tom was able to create a unique, community-oriented work of art that is so much more meaningful than generic VR games on the market.”
“An immersive virtual-reality experience can commandeer a patient’s brain so it no longer focuses on pain,” says Dr. Brennan Spiegel, a researcher, gastroenterologist, and professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t work on everybody, but when it works, it really, really works,” he said.
Pediatric cancer patients are using VR for pain remediation instead of opioids at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Applied VR, a Los Angeles-based company also working on pediatric pain relief, uses the mobile Samsung GearVR to treat hospital patients suffering from anxiety, phantom, acute and chronic pain, memory loss, as well as the tedium of a long hospital stay. The content of the VR elements can range from games and guided relaxation to nature experiences and education. Josh Sackman, President of Applied VR, says games are most popular with kids. Applied VR has had to overcome a number of obstacles to be accepted in a hospital setting. “It has to work out of the box,” said Sackman. “It can’t be more complex than launching an app preloaded onto a phone.” In addition, the headsets must be sterile. As part of the “kit” provided to the hospital, Applied VR includes a healthy supply of disposable foam face pads, which can easily be replaced to ensure the GearVR is as close to sterile as possible outside an OR.
“The Virtual Reality Fine Art Program at Montefiore seeks to diminish anxiety, pain and opioid addiction through stimulus-rich and curated artistic environments. These experiences will serve as ‘immersive analgesics’ allowing physicians to treat their patients more effectively by improving patient’s health and hospital experiences and reducing reliance on pain medication, especially opioids,” Davis said.
“Since this collaboration proved successful, we are now planning on expanding our efforts to use fine art and advanced technologies for pain remediation in our Pediatric Sickle Cell, Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant patients,” Davis concluded.
Tom Christopher working with Tilt Brush, composited with what he’s making inside of VR.