The Virtual Cure

One team of visitors from Montefiore’s Children’s Hospital Innovation Lab (known as the CHILZone) has come with a virtual reality headset to share an immersive fine art experience with some of the children. They first drop in on Anna, a 14-year-old who has been recuperating in the hospital for a month. Her room is decorated with posters from Riverdale, her favorite show, and of Demi Lovato, her favorite singer, as well as with encouraging notes from her classmates. Chemotherapy has taken her hair.

A Montefiore graduate student helps position the headset over Anna’s face, and immediately she starts looking around the invented world in wonder. “I’m in a diner,” she says, turning her head as far as it will go. “It looks like Riverdale. There’s a lot of taxis outside. There’s a Con Ed truck. Two girls look like they’re gossiping in the street.”

The VR headset makes her feel as if she’s inside a three-dimensional painting of nearby Fordham Road at Grand Concourse, a familiar sight for many patients, most of whom hail from the area. The immersive environment—complete with colorful street denizens, cars, and shops with intricately rendered interiors—was commissioned by Montefiore’s Fine Art Program and Collection and constructed by artist Tom Christopher and student interns from the Fine Arts department at FIT using the virtual reality painting software Google Tilt Brush.

This is more than just a beautiful, innovative art project. It’s the first step in a plan to use VR artwork to reduce physical pain as well as—or better than—narcotics.

At Montefiore, hospital art isn’t bland decoration; it’s selected specifically to aid healing and tailored to each patient population.

“You can’t just go into a stroke patient’s room and say, ‘Oh, great, the couch is red, so let’s hang a blue-and-white Mel Bochner,’” explains Olivia Davis, curator of Montefiore Health Systems and project manager for the Montefiore Fine Art Program and Collection. “For stroke victims to piece together memories, they need to see more abstraction, with just a hint of figuration. And you don’t want someone in a coma to awaken to a huge, glaring painting of a flower.”

As she considered what type of art to hang in children’s wards, Davis noticed that the patients and their families were constantly looking at screens. “I realized no matter what I put on the wall, it couldn’t compete with the technology of our daily lives. So I started to investigate the virtual and augmented reality art worlds.”

Most of the available virtual reality art showed nature scenes, “things a child from the Bronx might not relate to,” she says. “Someone from Mott Haven has probably never been camping.” She thought a nearby streetscape would be more likely to spark their imagination.

In early 2017, she invited Tom Christopher to paint a lushly detailed virtual-reality landscape that patients could explore. She chose Christopher partly because he had no experience working digitally: She was curious to discover what an analog painter might do with the technology. “We wanted to see the hand of the artist in the painting,” she says. “VR should be a tool for artists, not something to replace art.”

Creating a city block to scale in virtual reality would become the biggest single artwork that Christopher had ever done. For help figuring out the digital component, he called his longtime colleague Thomas McManus, associate professor of Advertising Design. In the ’90s, McManus, then an art director at TBWA Worldwide, had worked with Christopher on one of Absolut Vodka’s iconic ads. “Absolut Christopher” is a riot of impasto brushstrokes.

“What do you know about virtual reality?” Christopher asked.

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” McManus replied.

Coincidentally, McManus had been researching VR technology and was looking for ways to build it into the curriculum. Together with James Pearce, technical manager in FIT’s IT department, he acquired two HTC Vive VR systems—each with a supercharged MSI gaming computer, headsets, controllers, and signal towers. Students and faculty in a range of departments lined up to try it out, and one of the setups is now being used in the sculpture studio as a new medium for Fine Arts students to explore. “Advertising is jumping on this technology like crazy,” McManus says. “This is big news, and it’s a big deal.”

McManus brought the Montefiore project to then–Fine Arts Chair Joel Werring, who selected five students to intern with Christopher on the piece. For six weeks in summer 2017, they spent hours each day on a Fordham Road street corner, sketching everything they saw, even pigeons. Christopher pushed them to mimic life with exacting detail.

“We’re not creating artwork, we’re creating information,” Christopher says. “Where’s his thumb? What’s he holding onto? Where’s his foot? This work is revitalizing classical drawing.”

Pearce trained Christopher and the interns on FIT’s equipment in the Faculty Research and Innovation Space in the Pomerantz Center. Creating a three-dimensional landscape from two-dimensional sketches required memorizing every angle of each object, building, and person, then putting on VR goggles and sculpting with digital swaths of color in the virtual space. Eventually, Montefiore’s CHILZone bought an identical VR system for the team to use in Christopher’s studio in Croton Falls, New York.

The vast Fordham Road VR experience has the feel of a Tom Christopher painting: bright colors and wild, joyful movement. Moving around in it and leaning in to see close detail is a singular pleasure. A woman in colorful island regalia protects herself from the sun with an umbrella. A passenger in a Boro Taxi watches a video screen. A plant vendor texts from a wheeled stool. A sandwich board advertises a spiritual advisor, and neon seafood signs invite passersby into a fish market. A crossing guard beckons a pedestrian while halting two cyclists. The painting invites visitors to wonder about these people and their surroundings.

After two of the interns, Joseph Irizarry and Stephanie Held, graduated in late 2017, Montefiore hired them to keep working on the VR art. The other three, Amanda Conticchio, Jessica Baker, and Angela Rosado, stayed on until they graduated in 2018. Once the team finished the Fordham Road environment, the hospital approved a second grant to re-create the main conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden in VR. Again, the students sketched exhaustively and sculpted plants, visitors, and gardeners in vivid color.

Next up, if funding permits, Christopher, Irizarry, Held, and a new cohort of interns will attempt the Bronx Zoo. Pearce is researching new VR painting technology for that project. He says that Tilt Brush was not designed for artworks the size of a city block; even with a powerful computer, the piece takes 20 minutes to load.

“The paintings are so huge, it’s obviously beyond what the creators of the program intended,” Pearce says. “The technology hasn’t caught up to what we’re doing.”

Another patient in the pediatric oncology ward, an 8-year-old girl with dreadlocks named Nyrie, is extremely enthusiastic about her time in the VR environment. She knows Fordham Road well, as her mother often takes her to shop there. “It was so cool,” she raves. “I saw lots of people. There were stores and a newsstand. It was the best.”

Nyrie’s and Anna’s excitement, though important, is only what enables the true potency of the artwork and the purpose of the commission. For the past 20 years, researchers have studied the power of virtual reality to ease pain in hospital environments. Davis recalls a 19-year-old man who recently came into the hospital with gangrene and had to undergo an excruciating skin grafting procedure. After 30 minutes of virtual reality, he was feeling no discomfort. The artwork she commissioned is meant not only to inspire but also to act as a powerful analgesic.

“Lately, I’ve been in a lot of pain,” Anna says. “It was nice to put on the headset and relax.”

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