hen 13-year-old Evan Fow ler logged onto the comput-
er in the seventh floor playroom of the C.S. Mott
Children's Hospital last fuesday, he was expecting to
video conference with another child from any one of over thirty
children's hospitals already connected to a computer network for
hospitalized kids called Starbright World. But Evan, an experi-
enced Starbright user who has alrcady talked with other hospital
patients from California, Texas and Arizona, would end up stay-
ing a little closer to home this time.
Although 20 users were logged onto the system when Evan
arrived, it took a few minutes to find another person to talk with, as
only one-on-one video conferencing is available and many of the
users were already talking with someone else. While waiting to make
a connection, a small digital v ideo camera from Intel, located on top
of the computer, was showing the scene in the room at Mot's.
After finally making a connection, the
wait was definitely worthwhile. In aY
window, filling about one-fourth
of the computer screen, arrived
a real-time video feed'of a
girl who was wearing a
me :hone and a pair of
headphones identical to,
the ones Evan was using.
As with all first meetings,
the first questions were
naturally "What's your
name'? How old are you?
What hospital are you in?
Only this time, instead of
answering the final question with
another hospital on the network,sch
as Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York
City or the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, the girl said, "Mott
Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor." Unknown to Evan on the seventh
floor, the hospital's Starbright computer on the fifth floor was being
used as well.
.deo conferences such as these happen many times a day on the
private, password-protected computer network known as Starbright
World. Originally developed by the Starbright Foundation in 1995,
and primarily sponsored by the Intel and Sprint Corporations, the
goal of the system is to help seriously ill, hospitalized children cope
with their illness through communication and learning.
A Virtual World Of Their Own
While Child Life Specialist Lisa Engbrecht believes the video
conferencing feature of Starbright World is "the big hit with the
kids," it is only a small section of what Starbright has to offer. After
logging in to the welcoming voice of Melissa Joan Hart, star of the
ABC television sit-com "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," users have a
choice of five main areas through which to explore, ranging from
preselected Websites to games to searchin
for on-line friends
Explore In the largest section of the net
work, kids have a chance to learn mor
about procedures they s ill encounter at the
hospital and to search through 300 pre'
lected vsbsit s, sshich are available on top-
ics about anything kids might enjoy, from
Beanie Rabies to sports to illnsssesae. H all
outside links to non- pprst ed sites ar' s v-
ered and Ingbrecht said that sometimes ti
kids get ftcirted vhen the Website wil
suggest another site, but the kids can't link
Additionaly. the Explore section includes
the Starbrigbtht Health Care Explorer Series
which serves to educate kids on medical top-
ics by helping them to "learn more self-man-
agement and take better care of themselves"
i ngbrecht said.
One such section, aimed at patients
from 4-years-old on up, utilizes a car-
toon format and interactive questions
to help children understand how an IV
"Kids have misconceptions about
what an IV does." Engbrecht said. Above: 6-year-old Brian1
"When they find out the needle is not World computer networt
left in, they realize that 'I can go back to Left: Child Life specialis
playing, and suddenly life is good again."
Connect: Located inside the Connect area is the popular video
conferencing feature, through which kids can participate in a real
time one on one chat. Kids enjoy this area because you "don't know
what's going to happen," said Karen Foulke, a Child Life develop-
ment officer. She told about one story in which a teenage boy was
asked by a 4-year-old girl to sing her a song.
For those who are uncomfortable with the video area, a text-only
chat room is available. Engbrecht said Starbright brings in famous
people to chat every once in awhile, such as Rosie O'Donnell and
Robin Williams. But during the time Evan was connected, video con-
ferencing was the communication means of choice, with 20 people
in the video area and no one in the chat rooms.
A third area of the Connect section is the Medical Bulletin Board,
a place where kids can leave their answers to questions covering a
wide range of topics. Many of the answers were upbeat and humor-
ous, because "they want to take care of the business at hand, and get
on with being a kid," Engbrecht said.
Giving hospitalized children the chance to interact with others
going through the same things allows them to know they are not
alone, Engbrecht said. "We can't truly understand what the kids are
going through," she said. But Starbright provides a place where kids
can go to "find some support."
Activities: Here, kids are able to play a number of
video games, such as Jurassic Park and sports games,
and to also complete arts and crafts projects. One of the
more popular sections is called 'The Wall,' a place
where users can draw digital pictures about different
topics. When completed, the drawing can be submitted
to Starbright for monthly contests.
Find a Friend: This portion of the system allows kids
to search for others who share similar interests and to see
if any of their friends are on-line at the same time. When
the kids log on for the first time, they create their own
unique user name and password and are asked to fill out
a personal profile including why they are in the hospital
and some of their favorite things.
For those parents who are concerned about their chil-
dren communicating with strangers over the internet,
Starbright is a protected system and nobody outside of
the preselected children's hospitals can gaii access.
Additionally, the system offers some anonymity because
there are no identifying factors other than the chosen user
name and which hospital the user is at, Engbrecht said.
Starbright Zone: The final section allows kids to
H thaon communicate with the creators of the network. The cur-
etr. rent version of Starbright World is based on the input of
Wang concentrates on the game he is playing within the Starbright
k, located at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
t Lisa Engbrecht helps 8-year-old T.J. Ferris use Starbright World.
children, who can send Starbright a letter or change their user pro
file in this area. Engbrecht said this is the least used of the areas, bui
she often encourages users to send Starbright their comments about
things they liked or would like to see added, such as new Websites.
Starbright World was launched on Nov. 8, 1995 at Mt. Sinai, witt
the help of Starbright Chairs Steven Spielberg and Gen. Normar
Schwarzkopf. Originally consisting of seven hospitals, the systeir
now encompasses more than 30 hospitals and the plan is to ev,'
ally include more than 100.
The system at Mott includes five computer stations, with the pos-
sibility of obtaining up to three more. A national donor fror
Starbright covered the first two years of operation, and the hospita
is currently looking for a donor after that. Foulke said Starbright wit
also provide new computers to Mott if, after two years, the hospita
finds its current technology is outdated, Foulke said.
Initially, some people, such as Activity Therapist Anne Mende
were hesitant about Starbright when Mott first received the nen
computers. "It was taking up all my counter space,' she said.
But she said she was converted to the new system when oneW
who didn't want to participate in any activities, got on Starbright an(
began to feel better after talking with another kid in the same situation
"He was actually giving hope to this other boy," she said. "I had
new admiration for Starbright after that. Now I see what it can do."
The Starbright World network is
organized into five distinct sections:
Explore: More than 300 approved Websites
can be explored by users, including such topics
as entertainment, sports, and health care.
® Connect: Children can communicate with
fellow patients at different hospitals through chat rooms, video
conferencing and instant messaging.
® Activities: Single and multiple-player options allow kids to play
games and participate in arts and crafts activities.
Find a Friend: Sick children can search for other STARBRIGHT
World users who have similar medical conditions or interests.
Starbright Zone: Users can e-mail their thoughts and sugges-
tions on how to improve the network.
The video conferencing feature of Starbright World allows kids in mor
children's hospitals across the nation to communicate with each oth