Imagining New Digital Experiences to Enhance Healing and Well-Being

By Eric Gunther and John Rothenberg

Can art and technology be brought together in healthcare environments to make a measurable impact on patient and staff well-being? This is the question we’ve been asking ourselves at SOSO. We believe that there are numerous opportunities to think more creatively about the role of technology in healthcare design, all in order to enhance healing and well-being.

Research has shown that art installations in hospitals correlate with patient wellness. In fact, a 2017 Denmark research study found that abstract paintings that were hung in hospital waiting rooms contributed to patient satisfaction. And a more recent study found that “the view that art can have beneficial effects on patient recovery is generally accepted nowadays” because it “can reduce the experience of pain through distracting the patient’s attention.”

Across every industry setting, there is a growing consideration of user experience and well-being. As we continue to emerge from the pandemic era and a stay-at-home mindset, companies seek interesting and dynamic ways to enhance mental and physical health and wellness, including improvements to the built environment. Organizations are exploring transformational architecture and design as a method of sparking captivation among tenants and patients, taking them on a journey that ventures outside the traditionally dull interiors of commercial buildings. We’ve reached a consensus that beautiful design and amenities can boost energy, inspire creativity and facilitate collaboration and efficiency.

In hospitals, patient healing is the priority and can be achieved through experiential and visual design elements. We know art is good for well-being, and we know good design also makes an impact. When we bring these together with technology, we can create new kinds of impact on well-being.

A newer concept transcending art, technology, and real estate is digital experience design, the marriage of technology, design, and physical space. In many ways, it is the consideration of physical spaces as hybrid through immersive digital art installations that can engage the five senses beyond just sight.

A multidisciplinary concept, digital experience designs are customized, activated installations that can appear as sculptures, chandeliers, or wall art and then transform into something else entirely through tech-enablement and engineering. It takes many of the trends and principles we see across real estate development and interior design, such as biophilic inspiration and dedicated wellness rooms, and reinterprets them into art that we can wholly experience as humans.

Digital experience design can be purposefully infused into hospitals to spark creativity, inspiration, and connection among patients, their families, and medical staff. It can look across the entire patient journey for new opportunities to creatively integrate technology into experience. This marriage of art, design, and technology can increase patient well-being by awakening the senses and inducing physiological states of awe conducive to healing. Thoughtful art and design can also create moments of shared awe, which become catalysts for improving psychological well-being. Beyond serving as a distraction from pain, they provide opportunities to deeply experience and transform grief into beauty, and to connect with those around you in similar situations. There is also curiosity around art specific to different hospital corridors, such as maternity wards and emergency departments, with the understanding that each patient experiences different challenges in their journeys.

To envision the impact of digital experience design in healthcare more concretely, we designed four technology-driven installations and situated them in realistic hospital settings. Each installation builds on a specific set of design principles to show how specific elements of digital experience design can positively impact healthcare. The projects, while hypothetical, heavily draw on creative technologies.

Kinetic Breath

Investigations into the physiological effects of slow breathing have uncovered significant effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory, and autonomic nervous systems. According to a Harvard study, breath control helps quell errant stress response, and deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.” Therapists and psychiatrists recommend deep breathing as a simple exercise with numerous benefits for overall health and well-being.

Kinetic Breath was designed to help patients alleviate stress by focusing on deep breathing.

Through slow, natural physical movements, this installation can reduce anxiety, activate the parasympathetic nervous system and increase mindfulness. In addition to the material and formal dimensions of biophilic design, Kinetic Breath invites the pacing and rhythms of nature inside, activating peoples’ sense of kinesthetic empathy.

Healing Vibrations

Studies have shown that the daily application of 20 minutes of vibration will “increase wound healing, speed muscle growth and repair, increase the levels of growth hormones, cause healing with less scar tissue, and help nerves heal.” Additionally, physical vibrations have been shown to positively affect several dimensions of health.

According to Gary Weitzman, a veterinarian and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, the cat purr is a “powerful healing action. It’s thought that vibrations from the activity are physically rejuvenating — a way for the cat to “heal” after stress. Purrs at a frequency of 25 — 100Hz could correspond with established healing frequencies in therapeutic medicine for humans.” Evidence also shows that “the soothing sounds of moving water trigger a response in our brains that induces a flood of neurochemicals. These chemicals increase blood flow to the brain and heart, which induces relaxation.”

Healing Vibrations is an installation that patients can recline on to experience the rejuvenating effects of vibrations. Benches are activated with vibrotactile transducers that transmit composed waves of low-frequency vibration to the body. In parallel with sounds from nature, it is designed as a non-visual experience that brings healing activation to the body through the senses of touch and hearing.

Connection Wall

Medical researchers “have concluded that patients with strong social support networks were less likely to report new functional limitations, experience chronic pain, and show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety compared with those with weak social-support networks.”

Connection Wall is a digital message board that uses text messaging and natural language processing to collect the unique experiences and feelings of all that pass through the hospital and to make connections between community members. Visitors text messages about their experience to the wall, which responds by showing them they’re not alone through dozens of other related experiences.

Text messaging is a natural interface that allows visitors to interact without touching a public surface. Digital channels can be spread across the full healthcare experience—from logging in to a portal to patient rooms—to provide emotional support, reassurance, and connection to other people. In addition to connecting patients with other patients, this can also help form a productive dialogue between patients and staff.

Illuminated Feelings

Research has found that in addition to being self-soothing, shedding emotional tears releases oxytocin and endorphins. These chemicals make people feel good and may ease physical and emotional pain. In this way, crying can help reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being.

Chromotherapy is a method of treatment that uses the visible spectrum (colors) of electromagnetic radiation to cure diseases. It is a centuries-old concept used successfully to cure various diseases. AmeriDisability notes that color therapy is not scientifically proven to help remedy diseases and disorders. However, anecdotally, it’s been reported to help in several situations, like “positively impacting academic performance” and assisting with “aggressive/hostile behavior.” It could also reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and learning disabilities. While not a primary treatment, in some people, it could help alleviate physical ailments like epilepsy, insomnia, migraine, and vision disorders.

Illuminated Feelings brings together the benefits of emotional release and color, allowing visitors, patients, and hospital staff to enter an immersive, meditative space where their speech and emotions are transformed into beautiful animations of colored light. Behind the scenes, speech recognition and natural language processing are used to turn the content and emotion of visitors’ voices into healing displays of colored lighting.

When thoughtfully combined, as in the four installations above, there are boundless opportunities to boost healing and overall well-being for patients, their families, and staff.

Eric Gunther is a co-founder of Sosolimited, where he works on creative applications of new technologies in entertainment, architecture, and data.  Sosolimited founding partner John Rothenberg focuses on creating memorable projects at the intersection of design, data, and technology.